March 11, 2022
Last week, I wrote about the role that chance plays in our lives, for better or worse. Chance obligingly proceeded to provide me with examples. A writer named Meryl Phair wrote in Salon about how she came to terms with her mother’s faith in Tarot cards, the divination system based on the interplay of chance and choice, which I had just got done mentioning in my discussion. A bit startling, because it is not the kind of subject matter that Salon normally concerns itself with, to say the least. Not only that, but the writer’s conclusion was similar to my own: the Tarot can at times result in uncanny insights because they tap into the unconscious on a deep level.
However, it was the arrival, by chance, of a message from Heather Cox Richardson, whose Substack newsletter Letters from an American inspired me to try a newsletter of my own, that set off such a fireworks display of responses in my head that I set aside the complete outline I already had of a newsletter on a quite different topic in order to write the present response instead. Don’t worry: you’ll get that other newsletter next week.
It so happened that Richardson was invited to interview President Biden. The interview, which took place on February 25, is available on YouTube,
and is something of a follow-up to Biden’s State of the Union Address. What struck me very powerfully was how both Richardson’s introductory remarks in her newsletter and Biden’s remarks in the interview itself illustrated the central tenet of Expanding Eyes: that human life is a dialectic of contending visions, and that those visions originate in the imagination, which constructs reality by constructing how we experience and interpret it. Yes, life has a material basis, and therefore society has an economic basis, but both individual destiny and world events result from what the imagination, with its twin poles of desire and fear, wish and nightmare, creates out of that material basis. While a Marxist might dismiss this as bourgeois idealism, an example of the wistful yearning of intellectuals to believe that ideas actually make any difference in the world, I am not speaking of ideas or ideology, but rather of the potentially transformative power behind them and out of which they arise—including Marxist ideas and ideology. Besides, I got most of this from William Blake, whose working-class leftist credentials are impeccable.
Richardson opens her written introduction to the interview with the statement of a perspective that is essentially identical to mine: “Every day, people write to me and say they feel helpless to change the direction of our future.” To which she responds: “I always answer that we change the future by changing the way people think and that we change the way people think by changing the way we talk about things.” Then this Pulitzer Prize-winning historian goes on to define American history as a struggle between two visions: the vision of equality articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the vision of private property and the social privileges thereof enshrined, for better or worse, in the Constitution. American history has been cyclical because every time the United States attempts to achieve greater equality, those who desire power and privilege turn people against it by convincing people that equality is a zero-sum game: gains for other people can only result in losses for them. Thus they take control of the political system by taking control of the narrative, as we sometimes say, and, once they achieve control, rig the system so that money and privilege concentrate at the top and society becomes increasingly unequal. “This point in the cycle came about in the 1850’s, the 1890’s, the 1920’s, and now, again, in our present.” This cycle is not, as in the Marxist theory of dialectical materialism, some kind of automatic movement driven by impersonal forces. As Richardson observes, it happens because those driven by the desire for power and privilege know how to turn ordinary Americans against one another by planting an anxious vision in some people’s heads. Thus our society cycles between oligarchy and true democracy, but this is not inevitable. Social change is possible by changing how people think.
This leads directly to what Biden says in the interview’s opening, where he recounts how Chinese premiere Xi, one of the many authoritarians who believe that democracy is a naïve and ultimately unworkable form of government, asked Biden to define the American democratic ideal in one word. Biden replied: possibility. That is a code word for the progressive vision, a vision of society developing towards greater equality over time, an equality that is economic but also social in the sense of an increasingly inclusive community that accepts difference. As he did in his State of the Union address, Biden called for ordinary Americans to unite around causes that are generally popular and would be even more popular if not for the relentless disinformation campaigns of those who oppose them. Most of the components of Build Back Better had wide public support, or would have had if the measure had actually passed. Most people are decent-minded, Biden believes, but have become confused because society is changing too fast, and because of a lack of accurate information. His example is his going to 57 districts as Obama’s Vice-President and educating people about how the Affordable Care Act prevents insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. Many people had no idea. When they learned that, their opinion changed, and the Act passed. Change people’s perceptions and you may change the world.
I have always been struck by how, when Biden speaks of the values that he is convinced most Americans actually share, he sounds surprisingly old fashioned: he is really speaking of the American Dream, revised to be much more inclusive than it was in the past but still anchored in grass-roots values, particularly in family. Biden argues for the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that he cannot imagine being a parent having to tell a child with a serious illness that insurance coverage for that condition has been exhausted. He seems unable to give a major address without coming around eventually to the death of his son Beau, clearly the central tragedy of his life. You would have to be pretty cynical, in my view, to dismiss this as simply manipulative political rhetoric. Biden has a common touch, a down-home folksiness that other presidents have had—or pretended to have. With Reagan and George W. Bush, it was indeed pretense, the performances of a couple of faux cowboys, the one a Hollywood actor, the other a Connecticut preppie who adopted a Texas accent along with his cowboy hat. With Bill Clinton it seemed a strange mixture of the genuine with the manipulative. But Biden’s down-to-earth personality seems to me utterly genuine, and in this he most resembles Jimmy Carter, another president who was far less popular than he deserved to be.
A president’s poll numbers are usually based on public perception of the economy, so we are back to the idea that perception creates reality. And public perception of the economy has been so dismal that it has caused Paul Krugman in his economic column in the New York Times to express some bewilderment. In fact, the economy is doing remarkably well. Sometimes that assertion merely means that things are great if you’re a computer programmer or investment broker but not good if you’re more middle of the road, yet that is not true either: unemployment is quite low, and people are refusing to take jobs they see as too unrewarding. Yes, there is inflation, but I seriously doubt that inflation is affecting most people’s lives in a big way, and everybody knows that much of it is temporary, caused by the pandemic. My speculation, for what it is worth, is that, to adapt and somewhat darken Biden’s diagnosis, the average American has been through too many crises, too fast. From the meltdown of 2008 to the Trump catastrophe to the January 6 insurrection to the ongoing insurrection against democracy on the part of Congress and state legislatures to Covid and now Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, to which we can add dramatically extreme climate events. It has simply been too much: the public has PTSD. It is in a neurotically negative, traumatized mood, and that is being projected on the president. And, once again, perception rules reality. The same was true of Jimmy Carter: Watergate, Vietnam, stagflation, gasoline rationing, the Iran hostage crisis, one blow after another. People were in an irrational state of mind. When Carter pointed this out in his famous “malaise” speech, people were furious—why? I think because he actually nailed it, and people didn’t like being told they were neurotic, especially because it was true.
A lot of the exasperation with Biden is I think fueled by incredulity. Can this man really believe, in the face of an entire Republican party (with only a couple of holdouts) that is openly trying to end democracy, that most people are basically decent and all we need is understanding about a common ground? One of Salon’s writers, Chauncey de Vega, responded to Biden’s State of the Union address by saying, “I’m sorry, Mr. President, but we desire no unity with fascists. This is how Democrats always lose.” Put philosophically, the allegation is that Biden lacks a Vision of Evil. I put it in capital letters because in some quarters of the intellectual world having a Vision of Evil qualifies you as a Very Serious Person, to borrow a dryly ironic term from economist Paul Krugman. And yet, the question is deserves to be raised, for the uncertainty about Biden is more than some kind of merely fashionable intellectual chic. At stake here is a view of essential human nature. Are human beings basically good but vulnerable to error? Or does the unending catalogue of suffering caused by selfishness, lack of empathy, and the will to power tell us that the problem is not ignorance but a depraved and permanently corrupted will? The imagination is no playground but a battlefield of contending myths, and the conflict between optimistic and pessimistic views of human nature has played itself out in the history of American literature. In 1958, literary critic Harry Levin published a book on Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville called The Power of Blackness. Its point was that the dark vision of such writers is in tension with the more hopeful and idealistic vision of writers such as Emerson and Whitman, indeed with the traditional optimism of Americans in general.
My own answer would be that the question is wrongly framed, as such questions always are when framed in either-or terms. The vision of possibility, to adopt Biden’s term, and the vision of the power of blackness are both necessary, are what William Blake called Contraries. That is a paradox, but, as Mozart said to Salieri (at least in a movie), there you have it. I would resist the temptation to dismiss it as what the post-structuralists call a mystification. It is mystifying to the human ego, which demands the kind of non-contradictory knowledge it is comfortable with. But something deep within us recognizes and assents. Both the light and dark visions are imaginatively resonant and compelling and therefore must both be true. After all, are we going to throw out half of American literature as “mystified,” and, if so, which half? In a passage in one of his letters, Keats coined a term, “negative capability,” that has become as famous as any of his poems. He defined it as when someone “is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts. without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Sometimes uncertainty and mystery exist because knowledge is hidden. But sometimes they exist because the truth is in plain sight and reason still cannot understand it, which makes the ego “irritable.” Nonetheless, negative capability is an even greater virtue when confronting the paradoxical. Keats cited Shakespeare as his example of negative capability. Sometimes I set my students a challenge. Which is greater, in the sense of giving us a profounder vision of human life, comedy or tragedy? Traditionally, the answer is tragedy, because tragedy has the Vision of Evil. But Shakespeare wrote both comedies and tragedies—and at the end of his life summed up his dramatic career in four plays called “tragicomedies.” Nor are comedy and tragedy confined to stage drama: Homer wrote two epics, and the Iliad is tragic while the Odyssey is comic in the sense of arriving at a happy ending.
The vision of possibility needs the Vision of Evil or it becomes merely sentimental and escapist, the power of positive thinking in the wrong sense. But the Vision of Evil needs the vision of possibility or it becomes a form of nihilistic despair—and nihilistic despair becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Shakespeare dramatizes this repeatedly. Othello chooses Iago, who interprets people in the most cynically negative light possible, over Desdemona, who always sees the best in people, starting with Othello himself. It is a total misinterpretation to see Desdemona as naïve because she is only sixteen and her husband is fifty. She proves repeatedly that she is insightful and shrewd, while Othello proves that he is a tragic, murderous fool.
A more tragic, more murderous fool is Macbeth. In recent days I have been haunted by the resemblance of Vladimir Putin to Macbeth, whose murder of King Duncan is portrayed by Shakespeare as pathetically delusional. People are guessing the truth even by the end of the scene in which the body is discovered, and in order to squelch resistance Macbeth is led into violence, including the slaughter of women and children, that is increasingly genocidal. But there is no way to back down. By the end, he is a mad dog, cornered and dangerous. What led him into this? No good to say “the witches,” for Macbeth chose to believe what he wanted to believe. Putin’s witches were the advisors who told him that the Ukrainians would welcome the Russians as liberators (where have we heard that one before?), that the West was too weak and divided to do more than whine helplessly in protest. No good to say Lady Macbeth, for Macbeth allowed himself to be dominated by her ambition. Here is a telling difference (and in interpretation the differences can teach us as much as the resemblances). Putin separated in 2013—interestingly, around the time that he started to become more obsessed and aggressive—from his wife of 30 years. There are apparently children, yet the Internet is surprisingly uncertain of their number or gender. He is a man alone—and yet he has his version of Lady Macbeth after all: a voice within him saying, “If you were a real man, you would do this. Strong men take what they want.” Two countries are being destroyed because Putin needs to prove his manhood.
No good either to reduce the present world tragedy to one man’s psychopathology, although that has played its part, as it has with Putin’s greatest admirer, Donald Trump. For the truth is that there is widespread, if grudging, admiration for the “tough guys”: all Democratic presidents find it difficult to be respected in foreign affairs because there is a prior assumption that they are “not tough enough.” Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to liberate the Iranian hostages was taken as proof of a kind of effeminate weakness. When the Vision of Evil is unchallenged by any more hopeful view of human nature, it leads to the conclusion that, if all or most human beings are basically selfish, the only effective leader is a strongman who keeps people in line through intimidation and coercion. It is not exactly a sign of feminist progress that some women are trying to play the tough-guy game too: hence Marjorie Taylor Green and Lauren Boebert, along with their role model, “grizzly mama” Sarah Palin. I have not yet seen the new Batman movie, but the reviews make clear that its plot is driven by the hopeless corruption of Gotham, from top to bottom. The implication is that what is needed is someone who can wade in there, knock heads, kick ass.
People are thrown off balance because Biden refuses to sound hard-hitting in the face of Republican obstructionism. However, while I am not trying to start a Joe Biden fan club (if you want to know, my first admiration was for Bernie Sanders), it is worth noting that he did not waste time naively seeking some kind of nice-guy compromise with Mitch McConnell. He simply launched Build Back Better, which turned out to be to be not timidly neoliberal but sweepingly progressive, modeled, as he admits in the interview, on FDR’s New Deal. It was defeated, not by right-wing Republicans, but by two Democrats who, according to how indulgent you feel, are either delusional or corrupt, or perhaps a combination of the two.
Biden says in the interview that he was formed by his early involvement in the civil rights movement. Given my folk-music roots, that is revelatory. It is easy enough to find YouTube videos of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez singing “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and “We Shall Overcome” during Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington. Of all the forms of American popular music, it is folk that has been most strongly an instrument—in fact a weapon—in the progressive fight for equality. When Woody Guthrie taped a sign saying “This Machine Kills Fascists” onto his guitar, he meant it. More perhaps than any other social phenomenon in my lifetime, the civil rights movement exemplified the vision of possibility, the vision of hope. The man who crafted “We Shall Overcome,” the unofficial anthem of the movement, was Pete Seeger, whose relentless positivity used to baffle me. There is horrifying footage of Seeger concerts in which rioters are throwing rocks, smashing the windows of cars, breaking signs. Seeger was brought up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era, blacklisted for years, and yet never became bitter, never lost his cheerful temperament or his conviction that we could build a better world if we join together in good will despite our differences. That is why his concerts were full of singalongs—and, believe me, Pete Seeger could get you singing even if you are the type who absolutely hates singalongs. All together, now. I have no idea what kind of music Joe Biden likes, but he resembles Pete Seeger in being an undeniably decent man who resists the temptation of anger and bitterness because he has a vision of possibility.
His country can use that: it has had its confidence shaken by a revelation of how much evil and hatred was lurking under rocks, waiting for its chance, and how easy it is to reverse progress. Hope is not certainty: that is what distinguishes it from magical thinking. However, typical for a Democrat, Biden has not been effective at messaging (unlike Republicans, who are all too effective at it). Biden acknowledges as much during the interview, and more or less blames Covid. Well, okay, but I think there’s room for improvement here. Since he considers FDR a role model, I wonder whether Biden should consider some form of pre-recorded “fireside chats.” One of his problems is that he is not a spellbinding orator like Obama, and in live, spontaneous situations he has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth. But his warm, common manner might be well suited to occasional informal talks, fighting disinformation, informing the public about positive achievements, letting people know that he is aware of their problems and not disconnected in the way that the elite upper echelon of the Democratic Party sometimes seems to be: in short, the equivalent of going in person to 57 districts.
It is all very well to preach a vision of possibility—but how do people acquire it? There is a Christian parallel here. The central Christian virtues are faith, hope, and love, and those are sometimes supposed to be a sequence, in that order. We start with faith, which makes hope possible, which blossoms into love. But you can’t will faith: the attempt to make faith an act of will makes it coercive. Similarly, you can’t just decide to have a vision of possibility. Maybe we should reverse the order, and start with love, with empathy and compassion, even if we believe in nothing, even if we are close to despair. Luther said we are saved by faith alone, but I think Luther was wrong, because some of the best people I know have no faith whatsoever, but they do have love, more love than some of the faithful. Mind you, I am not sure that love is all we need, even if the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, for faith is vision, and love and hope without vision are as blind and therefore powerless as Samson enslaved by the Philistines, those tough guys. That is why this newsletter is called Expanding Eyes. But maybe this reversal of sequence is an aspect of post-Romantic modern mythology. For us, maybe, hope must be born out of love, and maybe we get faith last, if and when we finally deserve it. That is certainly what Shelley is saying in the tremendous lines from Prometheus Unbound that I have quoted in a previous newsletter: “To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates.”
That could be true whether our faith turns out to be spiritual or secular. In fact, the final revelation may be that, in the end, the spiritual and the secular are not alternatives but Contraries, two aspects of the same imaginative vision, despite their very real creative opposition. That is the theme of Northrop Frye’s final book, significantly titled The Double Vision. Of course, such an identity-in-difference is a paradox. But, well, there you have it.