Here are a few literary allusions that I’ve come across during the Republican campaign season. Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Bunyan, Herman Melville, William Blake, Lewis Carroll, A. A. Milne, and Roman authors of comedies are all in the mix. Enjoy:
On the purity test in the GOP primaries
The contenders in the Hester Prynne primaries are tripping over one another trying to be the most radical, unreasonable and insane candidate they can be. They pounce on any traces of sanity in the other candidates — be it humanity toward women, compassion toward immigrants or the willingness to make the rich pay a nickel more in taxes — and try to destroy them with it. – Maureen Dowd, New York Times
On the need for humor when covering the primaries
Reader: Can the primary be viewed in any other way now than as an inspiration for fun?
Hertzberg: As a patriot I find what has happened to the party of Lincoln sad and scary, so one finds one’s consolation where one can. It’s the golden age for Stewart and Colbert. If I’m not mistaken, Roman comedy was at its funniest in the late, degenerate stages of the Empire. – Live chat with the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg
Funny though this is, Hertzberg may have his facts wrong. Plautus and Terence were pre-empire. Maybe he has Petronius’s fictional work Satyricon in mind although even that was not late empire. Then again, the U.S. may not be late and degenerate yet.
On Rick Santorum’s evangelical Protestant brand of Catholicism:
The curious aspect of this apocalyptic asceticism is that it is more obviously associated with Protestantism and Puritanism than with the Catholic Church. Growing up, I was always struck by the relatively relaxed worldliness of Catholics. Their priests were officially barred from sex, but they enjoyed good food and wine, told dirty jokes, lived in the world, and so on. Catholics seemed to lay the emphasis on forgiveness rather than Calvinist damnation; the whole delicious mystery of the confessional bespoke a customary accommodation with the temptations and consolations of secular life. Historically, Protestantism came about, in part, as a reaction to such Catholic relaxation. And a major theme of Protestantism—more sharply focused through the lens of Puritanism—became the image of life as a kind of shadow of the true life above; of our time on earth as a pilgrimage toward the heavenly kingdom. It is there in the works of John Hooper (c. 1500-1555), considered the father of English Puritanism, when he writes that we must “see, know and understand the vanities of this world, the shortness and misery of this life, and the treasures of the life to come.” It is there in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and omni-present in Jonathan Edwards’s work, notably in The Christian Pilgrim, when he writes that the enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied:
To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodation here. Fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends are but shadows; but God is the substance.
Melville, brought up in the Dutch Reformed Calvinist faith, plays around with this kind of theology in Moby-Dick, when he has Captain Ahab claim that all visible objects are but “pasteboard masks.” Santorum may claim, as he did in 2008, that “mainline Protestantism in this country … is gone from the world of Christianity, as I see it,” but, with his attacks on “Satan” and “sensuality,” and his apocalyptic or even post-millennial Christianity, he often sounds like an eighteenth-century American Puritan.
Hence a particular impatience with the values of environmental conservation. For the apocalyptic Christian, sights set firmly on heavenly life, the earth might indeed be a finite and transitory thing, what William Blake wonderfully called a “mundane egg.” Man is what needs to be protected, because each of us is a soul, whose eternal fate is up for grabs.
So when Santorum says that we must be good stewards of the earth, there is religious zealotry behind the sweet words. He is proposing, in effect, that the earth is dispensable but that our souls are not; that we will all outlive the earth, whether in heaven or hell. The point is not that he is elevating man above the earth; it is that he is separating man and earth. If President Obama really does elevate earth over man (accepting Santorum’s absurd premise for a moment), then at least he believes in keeping man and earth together. Santorum’s brand of elevation involves severing man from man’s earthly existence, which is why it is coherent only within a theological eschatology (a theology of the last days). And he may well believe that man cannot actually destroy the earth through such violence as global warming, for the perfectly orthodox theological reason that the earth will come to an end (or be renewed) only when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. In other words, global warming can’t exist because it is not in God’s providential plan: the Lord will decide when the earth expires. This is Santorum’s “theology,” phony or otherwise. – from James Wood, The New Yorker
On the current state of Newt Gingrich’s candidacy:
Like the Cheshire Cat’s cheerful smile, Gingrich is fading. – Hendrik Hertzberg
On Mitt Romney’s overwhelming attack on Gingrich in Florida
(thanks to the Sewanee Messenger)
“Down by the Pond”
By A. A. Milne
Don’t talk, anybody, don’t come near!
Can’t you see that the fish might hear?
He thinks I’m playing with a piece of string;
He thinks I’m another sort of funny sort of thing,
But he doesn’t know I’m fishing-
He doesn’t know I’m fishing.
That’s what I’m doing-
No, I’m not, I’m newting.
Don’t cough, anybody, don’t come by!
Any small noise makes a newt feel shy.
He thinks I’m a bush or a new kind of tree;
He thinks it’s somebody, but he doesn’t think it’s Me,
And he doesn’t know I’m newting-
No, he doesn’t know I’m newting.
That’s what I’m doing-