An Antidote to 45

There are times when I genuinely wonder whether I can hold up psychologically in our current politics and culture. My shrink tells me I am far from alone in this, and that everyone she listens to is consumed with a depression that swings from despair to rage to what can only be called learned helplessness. There are moments when everything I have come to believe in — reasoned deliberation, mutual toleration, liberal democracy, free speech, honesty, decency, and moderation — seem as if they are in eclipse. Emotionalism, tribalism, intolerance, lies, cruelty, and extremism surround us (and I have not been immune in this climate to their temptations either). Trump has turned the right into a foul, spit-flecked froth of racist reactionism, and he has evoked a radical response on the left that, while completely understandable, alienates me and many others more profoundly with every passing day …

Trump himself seems hard to oppose without in some way mimicking him. Take the high road and you risk genteel irrelevance. Go down to Trump’s level and you find yourself wrestling with a brawler whose indecency eventually defines you as well …

[W.H.] Auden is an antidote to Trump and to our times. He despised celebrity; he ran from fame and money; he never “signaled” his many virtues to anyone; in fact, he went to great lengths to hide them from view. “Once at a party I met a woman who belonged to the same Episcopal church that Auden attended in the 1950s, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery in New York,” Mendelson recalls. “She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.” He privately paid for the tuition of a succession of war orphans until his death; he made himself look like an asshole in demanding immediate payment for some work — but only so he could quietly give the money to Dorothy Day’s homeless shelter in New York. Mendelson also recalls how “I got a phone call from a Canadian burglar who told me he had come across Auden’s poems in a prison library and had begun a long correspondence in which Auden gave him an informal course in literature. Auden was especially pleased to get him started on Kafka.” It turns out that there were countless such acts of quiet generosity.

He hated to grandstand. He knew the temptations of the easy political stance. He gave a public speech in the U.S. just after he arrived here in 1939 and got a rapturous response from the liberal crowd. But he wrote to a friend afterward: “I suddenly found I could really do it, that I could make a fighting demagogic speech and have the audience roaring … It is so exciting but so absolutely degrading; I felt just covered with dirt afterwards.”

Auden found this wisdom — and indeed way of life — in Christianity, as so many others have over the millennia, which is why I worry about our day and age. We live in a post-Christian world, and even many who say they are Christian turn out to be craven sophists, dedicating themselves to an evil man for the sake of something they call good. So where do we go to get off the train of history now that faith has “ended,” to see it in some deeper perspective, outside the hot take of 30 seconds ago, the news of the last hour, or the most recent assault on reason and decency from the man at the head of the table? …

(Andrew Sullivan) Read the whole thing, including the second part, on science and sexual harassment.

* * * * *

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

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