Read to Resist: An Introduction

John Singer Sargent, “Man Reading”


I share today the introduction to my upcoming book, which is still in draft form and whose title I keep changing. Latest title: Read to Resist: Classic Lit Provides Tools for Battling Trump and Trumpism. I’m still not entirely satisfied with that and so will keep tinkering. In any event, here’s my first attempt at an intro.

Introduction to Read to Resist

Looking back through the daily essays that I post on my blog Better Living through Beowulf, I see that I first started paying attention to Donald Trump in 2015, when he launched his presidential run. Before then, I thought him a mere carnival sideshow, viewing his claims that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States as a bizarre means of attracting attention. For far too long I didn’t take him seriously.

Once he started gaining political traction, however, I did what I always do when faced with life’s mysteries: I turned to literature. Of course, many seasoned observers of American politics also helped me out, but literature made its special contribution. I should note that the essays in this collection stop at the 2018 midterm elections. It will be interesting to see which ones withstand the test of time and which will seem outdated in two or three years.

In the book’s final essay, I quote Salman Rushdie’s observation that, when political leaders undermine our grasp on reality, literature delivers “the truths of the great constant, which is human nature.” The Roman poet Horace tells us that literature speaks truth while entertaining us, and the most truthful literature never loses its relevance. Times may change, but (to do a rundown of this collection’s opening essays), Twain, Gay, Melville, Gogol, Milton and Shakespeare knew a conman when they saw one. Meanwhile Orwell, Kundera, and Shakespeare (always Shakespeare) understood authoritarian impulses, Dante and Melville gave us unforgettable images of flatterers and enablers, and authors as ancient as Aeschylus and Euripides wrote dramas where victims push back.

We need truth tellers more than ever as America’s president lies constantly while attacking such institutional guardrails as the justice system, the academy, the press, the intelligence agencies, religion, and science. When a president cavalierly shifts the grounds of reality, society flounders. That Trump is aided by powerful forces like Fox News, rightwing billionaires, and Vladimir Putin makes resistance to him particularly challenging.

Literature has always stepped up when truth and morality are under assault. In his mock epic masterpiece The Dunciad, for instance, Alexander Pope imagined stupidity, embodied in the Goddess Dullness, extinguishing everything that upholds civilization. At her universal yawn, all the lights of the world go out:

Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires. 
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.

The essays in this book show us how literature can help counter such an assault. Because we cannot resist effectively until we understand the problem, the first three sections look into Trump the man, Trump’s tactics and policies, and Trump’s supporters and enablers. Within each section I have arranged the essays chronologically so that the reader can track my own dawning awareness of the problem’s scope.

For instance, while early essays tagged Trump as a relatively harmless (albeit nasty) conman, later essays became alarmed and began exploring his authoritarian tendencies (Trump as a wannabe Macbeth). From a mere grifter like Tolstoy’s Prince Vasili, I came to see him as a Iago, malevolently and spitefully whispering into America’s ear on his way to destroying all that is honorable and innocent.

Literature also explains how and why Trump commands such loyalty from certain followers.  For instance, after Milton’s Satan corrupts Adam and Eve, he doesn’t have to directly tell Sin and Death that they can rampage throughout the earth. Instead, they themselves sense their moment has arrived, with Sin discovering,

Methinks I feel new strength within me rise,
Wings growing, and Dominion giv’n me large
Beyond this Deep…

If there has been an uptick of white Americans verbally and sometimes physically assaulting Jews and people of color, it is because they feel a new strength within. Their wings are growing.

Likewise, H. G. Wells’s Invisible Man helps us understand why members of the GOP establishment have surrendered to Trump. By getting away with behavior that would have ended any other politician’s career, Trump appears to have suspended the laws of political gravity, just as Griffin suspends the laws of physical reality. Griffin’s exhilaration when he realizes he can escape accountability has spread to Republican politicians:

I was invisible, and I was only just beginning to realize the extraordinary advantage my invisibility gave me. My head was already teeming with plans of all the wild and wonderful things I had now impunity to do.

Trump’s impunity made an impression on Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who worships at the feet of libertarian Ayn Rand. When Trump threw political correctness and common decency to the winds, Ryan must have felt he was witnessing the living embodiment of John Galt. After all, this new Atlas casually shrugged away the “pussy grabbing” scandal, making Ryan’s momentary attempts to condemn Trump appear weak. “So this is what an Übermensch looks like,” one imagines Ryan thinking.

Literature doesn’t only articulate the problems we face, however. It also shows us people fighting against the forces of darkness. In Parts IV and V, I delve into literature that inspires active resistance.

For instance, Agamemnon’s Cassandra, Euripides’s Bacchae, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Margaret Atwood’s Offred, and Ursula Le Guin’s Omelas protesters resist patriarchy, racism, and scapegoating generally. Heinrik Ibsen’s 1882 play Enemy of the People could not be timelier as it shows a man courageously fighting against manufactured reality. Sometimes Stockmann behaves well, sometimes not, but always in illuminating ways.

I also reference poems that people have written that show a way forward. Good art never limits itself just to prescription, and these works capture our complicated reality while providing a framework within which to explore our options.

As I compare this collection with my previous How Beowulf Can Save America: An Epic Hero’s Guide to Defeating the Politics of Rage (2012), I realize that I have become less optimistic. I correctly identified America’s monsters, especially our resentful Grendel (lower class status anxiety) and our dragon (threatened upper class entitlement), but I thought that we could draw on our foundational values to fend them off. I underestimated the lengths that GOP Republicans would go, led by dragon Mitch McConnell, to protect their privilege. I didn’t anticipate that Machiavelli, not the U. S. Constitution, would become the new playbook.

Barack Obama may have thought he could appeal to our better angels, but now we see Trump attacking the free press and the GOP packing the courts. If, as I argued then, the Declaration of Independence is our version of the giant sword Beowulf uses to slay Grendel’s mother, then what happens when the sword itself is neutered? Like Beowulf’s dragon, McConnell and Trump threaten to burn down our great hall.

While Grendelian resentment and dragon entitlement are proving more intractable than I anticipated, however, the same counter measures still apply. Fighting the monsters requires people to come together like Beowulf and Wiglaf. The ideals upon which America was founded still make our hand grips firm, our giant swords sharp, and our warrior unity purposeful.

Having made the case for literature’s importance, I must add a caution. Reading is no substitute for canvassing, making calls, giving money, participating in protests, running for office, voting, and much more. The arts have never defeated tyranny by themselves. Rather, they should be considered an indispensable ally, a safe space where one can center oneself amidst all the lying, gaslighting, and spin. Think of literature as a “No Bullshit” zone.

To make use of poems, plays, and works of fiction, immerse yourself in them, allowing them to work their magic on you. If you do, you will take on their power and their wisdom. Often works will impart grit or persistence or fortitude as they remind you of your ideals and why it is important to keep fighting. When the effects wear off (as they will), you have but to dive into another work to recharge your batteries. My essays will help you make the most out of a given story or poem.

To unleash a work’s full power, I recommend a three-step process of Immerse, Reflect, and Act (IRA). First immerse yourself in the work, identifying with the characters, the story line, the speaker, the emotions, the themes. Second, reflect upon your experience, perhaps sharing it with others or mulling it over privately. Reading the essays in this book, finding on-line analysis, and setting up book discussion groups are useful. Finally, use your reading experience as a springboard to action.

I am aware that creative writing, unlike most expository prose, is open to multiple interpretations and that Trump supporters can use literature for their own political ends. To cite one example, during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn compared Republican senators to Atticus Finch and Judge Kavanaugh to black victim Tom Robinson. In other words, he appropriated African American suffering to serve the interests of white male privilege.

Yet literature’s nature is such that it deepens conversations even when one disagrees with someone else’s use of it. For instance, Cornyn’s comparison tells only half the story. When we look at the Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s sequel (Go Set a Watchman), we see a man whose underlying racism is revealed once Calpurnia and other African American characters challenge his white entitlement and demand their rights. Although Flannery O’Connor called To Kill a Mocking Bird a fairy tale, the sequel proves that Lee knew the people she was writing about: they transform from benevolent patriarchs to White Council supporters when their elevated place in society is threatened. We saw recent examples when Republican candidates from Florida and Georgia turned to race-baiting and strong arm tactics once it appeared that their African American opponents might win.

Incidentally, that Cornyn turned to a work of literary fiction at a tense time in our nation’s history shows that literature still packs a punch, even in our non-reading age. The question is how to unleash this power in the service of social justice.

In the 1920’s, literary theorists such as F. R. Leavis regarded literature as the single go-to resource for people who wanted to make the world a better place. Following the devastation of World War I, they looked to the classics to save us. Marxist theorist Terry Eagleton exposed their faith as myopic and elitist in his Introduction to Literary Theory, and we would be naïve to hold these beliefs now. Literature may be powerful, but it cannot operate in a vacuum.

That being acknowledged, however, it is also true that literature provides tools and perspectives that we find nowhere else. It can be a treasure house for front-line activists, community leaders, commentators, political scientists, legislators, teachers, lawyers, journalists and others. If you see yourself as part of the resistance against Trump and Trumpism, this book is here to help you link up with the plays, poems, and fictional stories that will serve you.

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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.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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