Monday, December 21, 2009

Pushkin's "Comedy of Distress" Today

Regular readers know that I am particularly taken with the phrase "comedy of distress," which seems to have originated with Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin applied it to his play about Tsar Boris Godunov, but most recently I applied it to the first two operas in Giacomo Puccini's Il Trittico, "Il Tabarro" and "Suor Angelica." I like the phrase because it reinforces Aristotle's precept that only nobles are capable of tragedy. Pushkin seemed to honor this constraint, since his play is less about the Tsar and more about the Russian people and their susceptibility to shift favor from an anointed tsar to a pretender to the throne.

Pushkin may well have felt that all of history is a comedy of distress; and, if he would not have gone that far, he would probably have granted that all of political history is such a comedy. We would do well to remember that we are in the midst of such a comedy; and, if we do not immediately recognize it, we can rely on folks like Garry Trudeau to clarify it for us. Consider today's Doonesbury strip. We have Mark Slackmeyer at his public radio microphone finally getting his dander up over Barack Obama:

You know what, caller? I'm sick of defending him! The truth is Obama has been a huge disappointment – on many issues!

Enough is enough! Obama has lost me! He's finally lost me!

Whereupon the voice of his caller responds:

But he's all we've got. If you bail, what's the point of your show?

Mark is struck dumb as we cut to advice from his producer:

Walk it back, dude, walk it back.

I am reminded that, when the all the chickens of the economic crisis were finally coming home to roost, I observed that "this would have been as farcical as the antics in David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross; but none of us would be laughing because we have all become victims." Mamet knew his Pushkin well; there was not the slightest shred of nobility in any of the Glengarry Glen Ross characters. So, while all of Mamet's characters came to grief over financial double-talk (and the grief comes to both those who speak and those who listen), Mark and all the real-world folks he represents are now coming to grief over the pedestal of secular Messianism they erected when Obama first emerged as a viable candidate for the Presidency.

The heart of Pushkin's comedy is the specious assumption that any mere mortal can serve as the embodiment of "high principle." In Pushkin's Russia deals are made and politics goes on; and things will always be this way, because people will always cheer a leader. Were he alive today, he would have made a character out of that New York cab driver cited in Andrew Keen's Great Seduction blog, who believed that Obama would fix the traffic problem in New York. Mark's tragedy is that, when his messianic mortal fails him, he loses his grip on those principles that are more important; but no mortal will ever live up to those principles all of the time.

The point is that, whether it is health care reform, economic recovery, or military adventurism, the people who matter the most are the skeptics who have the chutzpah to respond to any proposal by asking, "Is this really what we want to do?" If the proposal can survive that question, then it may well have the merit attributed to it; but there is no merit in a plan that exists only to make Obama (or any other politician of any party) look good, domestically or internationally. As long as there are such skeptics and as long as they have platforms from which to speak, there may yet be some hope for that "audacity of hope" being more than a slogan for getting elected.

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