America’s and Trump’s

We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians. Massimo D’Azeglio at the dawn of Italian unification, 1860

The artist as the created; Mona Lisa’s Leonardo, Beatrice’s Dante. Curious concept. Guy Davenport in a letter to Hugh Kenner, 1963

America’s Americans? Trump’s Trump?

“Satan’s Milton” prompted William Blake, poet and illustrator, to write that John Milton was of the Devil’s party anyway, irrespective of his Satan in Paradise Lost. Many people are so used to thinking of the Devil as a systematically misleading expression—a noun with no literal referent—that we forget the “Devil’s party” exists in the same way “America’s” or “Trump’s” exist as a network of narratives or, better yet, a networked palimpsest of overwritten narratives for those who take their purchase from them.

If I talk about “Gatsby’s F. Scott Fitzgerald,” I could be saying Fitzgerald’s creation is based in good part on Fitzgerald himself. Or, if I talk about “the fairytale’s teller,” I might be noting how the shared structure of fairytales sets the course for their telling.

Or, if I am talking about Satan’s Milton, I might hypothesize that the poet worked out his own theology in greater detail by having to think about and dictate that Satan into Paradise Lost. In fact, it is unexceptional to argue that context makes the person and the person the context: Join a bullshitting organization and you become a reinforcing bullshitter. Take active part in a bullshitting nation and, surprise, not only are its leaders bullshitters.

All of that, again, is known or tacitly appreciated. What I want to explore is something more complicated and accordingly more open-ended.

To what extent has our composite creation, this networked palimpsest called “America,” or for that matter our composite narrative called “Trump,” ended up creating openings for those who identify as Americans or as Trump to rewrite themselves in more specific terms?

Just as the point of “an average man’s man” is that it’s not just men being talking about and that no individual ever matches a demographic mean, so too America’s Americans and Trump’s Trump are more ideographic because the overarching narratives and palimpsest are more complex than assumed.

How so? Undertake a thought experiment (the idea for which comes from another letter of Davenport’s to Kenner).

Imagine two parallel worlds so alike that they would have been the same, were it not for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. One world has the line, “I am thy father’s spirit;” the other instead has, “Ich bin dein Papas Spook.” The former world does not know of the latter; nor does the latter world know the former’s line. Both readings and their respective commentaries, however, lurk as possible, because Hamlet is complex enough as a text to accommodate both—and more for that matter.

By extension, to say we live in a world of “Papa’s Spook” than of “spirit” is true only as far as it goes. It’s only good enough when we push our re-readings further.

For example, it is little recorded that some early English colonists to America either ran away to live with Native Americans or refused to return from captivity when given the chance. As one early writer put it, reluctant colonists enjoyed the “most perfect freedom, the ease of living, [and] the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail upon us”. Native American practices were also adopted by other colonists who remained firmly in the Western tradition. Famously, an early French Jesuit found Native American customs “afforded me illumination the more easily to understand and explain several matters found in ancient authors”.

Just imagine the entire lot of colonists ran away to live with Native Americans, once realizing that better practices had already been found and that colonization was a ghastly prospect by comparison. Now that’s a counterfactual worth more re-readings![1]

[1] Note that major counterfactuals are often scandalous and remain so, not least because the way things remain a scandal in the extreme. Here is a different counterfactual–this of the 18th century Enlightener, Denis Diderot, prior to the French Revolution–with which to parse our own scandalous times:

What if the virgin Mary had been the mother of pleasure, or even the mother of god, what if it had been had her beautiful eyes, her beautiful breasts, her beautiful buttocks which had attracted the Holy Spirit [on]to her and if this had been written in the book about her history. What if the angel Gabriel were extolled there for his handsome shoulders, what if the Magdalene had had some affair with Christ; what if at the marriage of Cana, Christ between two wines, a bit nonconformist, had caressed the breasts of one of the bridesmaids and the buttocks of Saint John, uncertain whether he would remain faithful or not to the apostle whose chin was hidden by a slight down; what would then have happened to our poets and our sculptors. With what spirit would we have described the charms which play so great and marvelous a role in the history of our religion and our God, and with what an eye we would we would regard the beauty to which we owe the birth, incarnation of our Saviour and the grace of our redemption.

Principal sources

Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner. Edited by Edward M. Burns, 2 volumes (Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA; 2018).

Spicer, A. (2020). “Playing the bullshit game: How empty and misleading communication takes over organizations.” Organization Theory 1: 1-26.

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