Who cares about poetry when surrounded by #trumpnoise? As outrages and tweets accumulate, attention divides. The idea of a “public” feels fractured and disorienting. Who are we talking to? Each other?
In the bitter climate of early November 2016, I spent my 50th birthday surrounded by friends and theater. A few days later I woke feeling as if my country had morphed into its own evil twin, recognizable but horribly distorted. In this raw season, I’ve been thinking about public writing, about values, and about how to counter #trumpnoise.
Like many humanities scholars, I write largely for what Paradise Lost calls “fit audience…though few” (7.31). My books and articles are aimed at fellow specialists and students of (mostly) premodern literature. I love it when an artist or non-academic writer or actor or old friend or anyone finds something of value in my work, and I’ve been enjoying recent collaborations with non-professors in projects such as Oceanic New York — but I also believe in scholarship on its own terms.
Now I’m not sure those terms are enough, at least not by themselves.
So, a month early, I’m resolving that in 2017 I’ll do more public writing, about public questions, for public venues. It won’t all be about politics. I’ll be trying to show in public the humanist and more-than-humanist values that I cherish. It won’t cut through all the #trumpnoise, but I’m hoping for a slowly expanding circle of clarity and resistance.
To borrow a great line from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the New Yorker, “Now is the Time to Talk about What We are Actually Talking About.” Writing and talking in public — showing the reasoned and tolerant speculative intellectual culture that we in the academy teach, in all its various and sometimes discontented voices — is worth doing more deliberately.
I have no magic wisdom to impart, and I don’t want to aggrandize myself. But I believe in the diverse, imaginative, vibrant America that Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor currently playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton, spoke publicly to Mike Pence about two weeks ago. I want to bear public witness to the value of this multiculture.
I’m not aiming to become a media star like the awesome medieval-historian-turned-journalist David Perry, but it seems important, now, to reach outside academic conversations. Clarity can counter #trumpnoise, at least on the margins, over time. History moves in surprising directions, but I don’t believe that irresponsible greed and selfishness represent lasting American ideals. History reminds us that 2017 won’t be the first year that an unrepentant white supremacist will work in the West Wing — but history also shows that hatred shrivels in sunlight. Eventually.
The moral of my story, told by ghosts, celebrates plurality in public.
He Must See Ghosts: Richard III, Trump, and the Future
The man who wanted to rule stood apart, downstage left, staring at his body in a full-length mirror. The Dutch actor Hans Kesting, playing Richard III in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s jarringly prophetic Kings of War at BAM the weekend before the election, projected a sinuous intensity that should have warned us all what was coming. Kesting’s Richard was enticing and violent, without any elaborate physical props except a wine-colored stain under one eye. He threatened by standing still, separate, eying his reflection while the other aristocrats pretended they were in control of the kingdom.
Kesting’s Richard walked as if on springs, unstable and uncomfortable, with his hips slightly forward and arms back, enough to disorient but not tipping into caricature. Only once did he he cascade into ridiculousness, wearing the crown he’d not yet claimed, draping a rug over his shoulders, and running around the stage in a parody of the humpbacked king.
We watched that same narcissism and blind ego triumph in pre-dawn darkness on November 9. Why did the people choose him? Shakespeare’s shown the answer for four ambivalently democratic centuries.
He dominated with unbearable greed and need. Seducing Lady Anne, betraying his brothers, condemning the princes in the tower: every step sang out reckless desperation. When he bared his breast and offered Lady Anne the knife, he revealed urgent but not sexual desire. He must be at the center, he must be the most hated and the most loved, the only one who matters. He-Who-Must-Always-Win.
Today we need a narrative to unseat that center-grabbing need. Shakespeare built that, too. Ghosts undid Richard. We must make him see ghosts.
Before the battle of Bosworth Field, King Richard sat in the chair of power with his back to the audience, staring at his own massive image on a video screen. Slowly, the features blurred to superimpose his victims: Henry VI, brother Clarence, the young princes, Lady Anne. Their presences maddened the king. As the screen faded to red he galloped around the stage bellowing:
A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!
What he wanted and could not have was a stronger and more animal body, a vehicle for boundless ambition and drive. He never got it. We saw him defeated. He galloped horseless until the video curtain pulled up to reveal the full cast, the nation, dressed as an invading army, with the future King Henry VII at the head. Trump-Richard snaked through the crowd and vanished.
We need to make him see ghosts. Against a solitary sleepless ruler with his fingers on twitter we juxtapose the relentless heterogeneity of the world. Ghosts represent history’s victims but in the half-light of this new regime history itself risks becoming spectral. Against his singularity we assert our plurality. We need everything and everyone to stay visible. He must see and we must see. Ghosts must show themselves on screens and streets—not just that shining spirit in her white pantsuit bearing the popular vote, but all the human and nonhuman people he’d rather ignore. Our ghostly plurality must refuse relegation to invisible spaces on national margins.
I missed the super-short deadline but wanted to add a final punch-line. I’ll splice it in here:
The ghosts whisper: Don’t normalize. Pluralize!