One of my college professors – let’s call him Stringfellow – spoke in long, flowing sentences, each of which might easily have been parsed into sparkling separate mini-poems. He liked Faulkner, disliked Hemingway, and tolerated Tennessee Williams for two reasons. Williams consciously structured some of his plays on classical Greek models – compare Suddenly Last Summer ]with Euripides’s The Bacchae – and Tennessee, he thought, was a name one could conjure with, as Wallace Stevens did adeptly in "Anecdote of the Jar," the first line of which runs, “I placed a jar in Tennessee/ And round it was, upon a hill …”
One day, a student asked Stringfellow – this would have been in the middle 60’s – “When do you plan to join the 20th Century?’ to which Stringfellow replied, “It would be a very wicked thing to wish to be a part of the 20th Century.”
The 20th Century, one of the bloodiest and confused epochs in U.S. history, left us 19 years ago last January.
The professor, students of history will notice, had a point. The century opened with World War 1, followed by World War II, followed by the Korean War, followed by the Vietnam War. And somewhere in there, we heard the Soviet Union crack and crumble, a cause of great rejoicing for nearly everyone but some few academics and willfully perverse journalists.
Every epoch has its dark side, its bloody mysteries. And it is by no means certain that succeeding generations will necessarily improve on their predecessors. In what sense is Atsuro Riley’s poem “The Skillet” an improvement on Alexander Pope’s “Epilogue to the Satires?”
Riley: “Of orange stove-eye (right front) and hawkhooked
pot-hook, overhung. Of (vaporous) supper-hour and
Pope: “Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God afraid of me.”
Good writing will be quotable and memorable. Though new, the twittering 21st Century already is eminently forgettable.
And the same holds true of men and women. When Franklin Roosevelt, campaigning against his tormentor, U.S. Rep. Clare Boothe Luce, of Connecticut, accused Luce of being a "a sharp-tongued glamour girl of forty,” the congresswoman from Fairfield County instantly retorted that Roosevelt was "the only American president who ever lied us into a war because he did not have the political courage to lead us into it." Luce died in 1987, but it is a fair bet she would have considered the tweets of most 21st Century politicians menacingly dumb and forgettable.
True, quotable Churchills are rare in human history, but most modern politicians do not even aspire to the quotability of, say, Adlai Stevenson: “Flattery is all right so long as you don't inhale.”
Pope: “Averse alike to flatter, or offend;/ Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend.”
Intelligent, “woke” thought, up until the 21st Century, roundly condemned the flatterers; but this was before flatterers found they could make a dishonorable but highly remunerative living as political consultants and communication directors for political campaigns. Now the disease is everywhere, tolerable only to those who do not inhale.
Stevenson: “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal - that you can gather votes like box tops - is, I think, the ultimate indignity to the democratic process.”
Stevenson understood the radical difference between sound political policies and what he and politicians before him understood to be disruptive enthusiasms, i.e., campaign slogans parading as realpolitik. “Some people approach every problem with an open mouth,” said Stevenson, a word-perfect picture of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New Green Deal scheme, the latest enthusiasm among Connecticut’s progressive, all-Democratic congressional delegation.
Most voters in the state are affronted by the notion that if they like their cars, they can’t keep them; if they like their houses, they can’t keep them; if they dislike windmills spoiling their scenery, they must have them; if they prefer their town governments to decide the fate of their schools and their communities, this option must not be available to them. These sensible, unbewitched people prefer more democratic solutions to thorny problems, such as: if they do not like their politicians, they should be able to get rid of them pronto!
A restoration of small “r” republican government must entail a reaffirmation of the doctrine of subsidiarity, which holds that political units closest to those affected by political decisions should prevail in making the decisions: fathers and mothers should decide the fate of their families; owners of businesses should decide the fate of their commercial enterprises; neighbors should decide the fate of their neighbors, towns should decide the fate of their municipalities; and both state and nation should busy themselves with facilitating small “r” republican government.
As to whether Connecticut is progressing or regressing politically, consider the following quote that, like a geyser of authoritarian presumption, issued from Connecticut’s progressive Speaker of the State House of Representatives, his Excellency Joe Aresimowicz. Responding to a non-binding resolution disapproving of tolls issued by towns and cities, Aresimowicz condemned such disapproval as “moronic,” an arrogant piece of anti-republican political sniping that could not even survive long as a tweet. “I used the harsh word moronic and I meant it," said Aresimowicz, who later unmeant it.
For the future, here is a useful political rule of thumb: If what you are saying is not edifying, memorable, honorable or quotable – shut up.
Don Pesci is an essayist based in Vernon.