Monday, August 15, 2011

History is a Nightmare

In a Times opinion piece that has attracted a good deal of attention, Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory, argues that, like little children, the electorate needs a good bedtime story. Obama, in his mind, is a bad storyteller (“What Happened to Obama, NYT, 8/6/11). “When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters,” Westen writes. “Americans were scared and angry…. In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end.” In his address at the 1936 Democratic Convention, FDR said, “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” Fiorello LaGuardia was famous for reading comic strips to the denizens of his beleaguered city. But ultimately the subject is not storytelling but history. Do great historical figures still create history, with Roosevelt and Churchill being forces of good and Hitler and Mussolini representing the axis of evil? Or has the world become so complex that there are no simple stories to be created by men? Lately, history seems to be making the decisions, with men merely taking credit or being assigned blame. Computer-generated stock market programs are capable of causing huge gyrations in markets that have little relation to industrial productivity. In a world in which information can become a virus that takes on a life of its own, it’s becoming apparent that the objects of man’s creation have beat him to the punch. It would be nice if Barack Obama had been able to create a reassuring narrative that would satisfy what Professor Westen calls the brain’s expectation for “stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought.” However, if President Obama were to tell a story that could explain what is actually occurring outside our windows, it might be written in the ironic postmodern style of Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace or Nicholson Baker, or even in the complex, poetically reticulated prose of Joyce. And it would not likely be consoling or even understandable. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus presciently states, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

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