Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dreaming about the Revolution

At the beginning of this month, I suggested that the fear greater than fear itself is the fear that a prevailing inability to deal with crises can undo our governmental framework into conditions of demagoguery. At the time I suggested that Sarah Palin was the most likely candidate for the resulting demagogue, but I also suggested that so many supporters of Barack Obama had endowed him with a "messianic aura" that, however honorable and sincere his intentions may have been throughout this bruising campaign, he, too, could emerge from the struggle as a demagogue. Yesterday Andrew Keen wrote a post to his Great Seduction blog entitled "Can Obama fix New York's traffic?," in which he finally seems to have tapped into the risks associated with an "Obama Revolution."

However, if we want to think about the "revolutionary" power of an Obama Presidency, we might do well to remember a lesson of an author from a country that had endured demagoguery at its worst. The country is Germany, the author is Peter Weiss, and the text is from his play, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of The Marquis de Sade. Here is the concluding passage from Sade's extended monologue on revolution:

And so they join the revolution
thinking the revolution will give them everything
a fish
a poem
a new pair of shoes
a new wife
a new husband
and the best soup in the world
So they storm all the citadels
and there they are
and everything is just the same
no fish biting
verses botched
shoes pinching
a worn and stinking partner in bed
and the soup burnt
and all the heroism
which drove us down to the sewers
well we can talk about it to our grandchildren
if we have any grandchildren

That last line has even more of a sting to it than it did when Weiss penned it, since I doubt that he was concerned about whether or not the earth itself would be able to continue sustaining human life.

Obama wants each of us to believe that our vote can make a difference. He is right, but Weiss' point is that difference means something different, so to speak, to each of us. About the only thing we all have in common is our foundational culture of instant gratification, which means we expect that difference we crave to be delivered to us on a silver platter the morning after Election Day. Obama has tried mightily to wean us away from that culture, as we saw in the acceptance speech he delivered in Denver; but this is a belief system that is just as addictive as our consumerism.

Weiss recognized the power of what, in his New Science, Giambattista Vico called "poetic wisdom," the power of poetry to enable understandings that we do not seem capable of arriving at through other means. Regardless of what Karl Marx said, getting on in this world is not all about learning enough from history to avoid repeating tragedy as farce. We can also learn from poetry, not necessarily to avoid past mistakes but to see the present with greater clarity. Vico thus offered us an alternative to the old saw: Those who ignore poetry are condemned to enact it! Here's hoping that the ghost of Peter Weiss has a sense of humor!

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