Paul Hudon: Diary in the Time of Coronavirus (10)
Another set of pandemic observations from our riverside correspondent Paul Hudon. We held this post during Baseball Week but the content remains timely.
Something of what we’ll call gallows humor from Mike Nichols and Elaine May, one of the breakout comedy teams of the ‘60s.
For a few brief seconds, this woman is on my screen holding up a surgical mask and shouting about instruments of control. Wearing that mask during a pandemic is an attack on her freedom, and she refuses to do it. She has a point. It is an imposition, an instruction imposed by a government agent—the CDC, a governor, a local board of health. But it isn’t arbitrary. And missing the point doesn’t make it arbitrary. The point being obvious to most of us, that some objectives need collective action. There’s a strong current in our political culture running against that. It’s going to cost us.
“There’s no such thing as society,” said Margaret Thatcher, later the Baroness Thatcher of Grantham—aka That bloody woman. Thatcherite is a fair label for that woman on my screen, and for the millions of like-minded Americans.
Pure Woody Allen. It might have been a scene from Sleeper (1973). The Dear Leader drinks a glass of water and the crowd erupts. Comic genius.
Only this is Tulsa and it’s 2020, and context rules. No laughs obtain.
I’ve had a few queries, very few, about that line from Time & the River in last week’s diary. “Time & the River opens on the proposition that we write ourselves another story; otherwise said, that we occupy a more deliberate narrative.” That’s the first sentence of the home page, incidentally.
How do we “occupy a more deliberate narrative?” Most are honestly confused by that. It doesn’t read like something that can be done. Yet that is what the Christian bishops did in the course of a few centuries. First, they rearranged the books of Hebrew scripture then added what they called the New Testament. A deliberate shaping of time: a step in the only direction you remember (or invent) is a step forward. Intention animates their project entirely. In Adam we sinned, in Christ we are redeemed. That’s our story. It took a while to articulate. Our anno domini scale of reckoning time does not appear until the 6th century, and is only slowly adopted; in Portugal it is not in regular use until the 14th century. But it was deliberately done.
Likewise, with the founding of the New Republic. In the HBO biopic of John Adams there’s a scene where Adams and Jefferson and Franklin work on the text of the Declaration of Independence. The clip begins with Adams saying, “This is something altogether unexpected.” He means that in his initial draft of the Declaration, Jefferson transitions from a claim of historical rights based in the British constitution to one of natural rights based on human nature as it was known in the advanced circles of the age. This transition from historical and corporate “liberties” to natural and individual “rights” is monumental political invention, and it was deliberately done. For a decade or two, books published in the U. States showed a year since 1776 as the date of publication—1776 was year one.
And there’s nothing alien to us in “the proposition that we write ourselves another story.” It’s what we do with time. From Joan Didion’s simple declarative title, We tell ourselves stories in order to live, to Paul Ricoeur’s three impenetrable volumes, Time and Narrative, there is now a range of essays and treatises on the subject available. Our species could just as well be known as homo narrans as homo sapiens. As I may have said before, to know and to narrate both hang from the same verb stem, gno.
We’ve made ourselves at home everywhere on the planet just by telling the story of how we go there. It’s the story we occupy.
Addendum: It is the story we occupy, but we forget, or maybe positively ignore, that we wrote it; that it is consequently ours to rewrite. This is the ultimate bound of human freedom in practice. If Jonathan Edwards had it right, and if I understand him right, freedom is not a human faculty but an occasion. An event involving our participation.
It is imperative that we recognize we are witnessing an event in the history of life. It is certainly technology, all this hardware and software; and it is political-economy and psychology and sociology as well. However, in itself it is life. Evidence of this comes on us in small pieces like this one:
Artificial intelligence designed to function like a human could require periods of rest similar to those needed by biological brains.
The current pandemic, the threat to the stability of our climate, the short-term, in-your-face insanity of Trump and his cohort of grifters, conspire it seems to hide this singularity (call it that) in the history of the planet. Which means there’s a fair chance we’ll miss the opportunity to get involved in shaping an outcome. Partner-up with a fixed geography in a long-term exploration of embodied AI. Our situation is unprecedented. Time we get creative.
“Whoever did not live in the eighteenth century before the Revolution does not know the sweetness of life and cannot imagine what happiness there can be in life.” That from Talleyrand’s Memoirs. Charles-Maurice Clerel de Talleyrand-Périgord, infamous in our history as instigator of the XYZ Affair. Bishop during the old monarchy, head of state during the Directory, Napoleon’s foreign secretary, mid-wife to a restored monarchy, a major player at the Congress of Vienna, ambassador of an Orleanist monarch: Talleyrand was not a man to “let events take their course.” Nor did he “go without.” He built himself an enormous fortune serving as Napoleon’s minister of foreign affairs. While Napoleon drew and redrew the map of Europe, scores of supplicants came to Paris begging to have this city or that county included in their new-formed state. Talleyrand listened and took their bribes. He genuinely didn’t understand when the Americans took his demand for money as an insult.
The eighteenth century, said Talleyrand, “forged all victorious weapons against the elusive adversary called boredom. Love, Poetry, Music, Theater, Painting, Architecture, the Court, Lounges, Parks and Gardens, Gastronomy, Letters, Arts, Sciences, all contributed to the satisfaction of physical, intellectual and even moral appetites, to the refinement of all voluptuousness, all elegance and all pleasures. The existence was so full that if the seventeenth century was the Great Century of glories, the eighteenth was that of indigestion.”
When boredom is your chief adversary and you don’t have a seven percent solution available to Sherlock Holmes you get yourself born into the nobility and stay there.
I think of Talleyrand occasionally, pondering how pre.pandemic and post.pandemic will sort themselves out.
There’s a longish piece in today’s Opednews (OEN) by ron ridenour (his name appears everywhere in lower case), a veteran with decades of experience taking it to the streets. The title leaves no doubt what he’s about doing, “Looking Back at Today’s Uprising: Unify the Movements” He begins on a personal note, in the ’50s, with the price he paid for being in sympathy with blacks in the military in Japan. He moves on, quoting from Glen Ford’s Black Agenda Report, to the volatile ’60s, “a period when some years saw as many as 5,000 separate demonstrations.” Two points stand out in ridenour’s survey. First, the role of the Democratic Party in co-opting “the movement.” Fair enough. From Bill Clinton and Obama, going all the way back to Andrew Jackson and the organizing of the Party, and not leaving out FDR, there’s a sound argument to be made that Democrats repeatedly functioned to control and redirect radical voices on the American left. His second point is in his use of the words uprising and unify. Together, or even separately, the words imply a dynamic. They assume a forwardness. This is a good thing to witness, a hopeful thing.
Masha Gessen comes to the same verdict in an interview published, again today, in The Guardian. Gessen was born in the States but raised in Russia. He has worked in both countries, and considers it a good thing as a journalist that wherever he is, he feels like an outsider. He has a long record of anti-Putin journalism, and a like record here with Trump.
Asked, What is the most important rule for surviving autocracy, Gessen answers:
For the state of one’s soul, for the state of one’s mind, I think it is absolutely essential to protest and show outrage. Does that have political consequences? Not immediately and not on its own. But I think what we’re seeing in America right now is several steps on from outrage. It’s outrage, plus organising, plus sustained political activity. The big question is how sustained will it be? If it is sustained in some manner, then I think we are in a revolutionary moment. In the book I talk about how in order to actually survive Trump’s attempt at autocracy we have to give up the idea of some imaginary pre-Trumpian normalcy and commit to reinvention. And that is really what these protests are about.
Commit to reinvention.