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?
If I talk about “Gatsby’s F. Scott Fitzgerald,” I could be saying that part of Gatsby which based on Fitzgerald himself. Or, if I talk about “the fairytale’s teller,” I might be pointing to how the common structure of fairytales sets the course for their telling.
Or, if I am talking about Satan’s Milton, I might be thinking that the poet, John Milton, worked out his own theology by having to dictate that Satan into Paradise Lost. All of that is known or can be easily appreciated. What I want to explore is something more complicated and more open-ended.
–To what extent has our composite creation, this networked palimpsest called “America,” or for that matter those composites called “Trump,” ended up creating openings for those who identify as Americans or as Trump to rewrite themselves?
Just as the entire point of “an average man” is that no specific individual matches a demographic mean, so too America’s Americans and Trump’s Trump are more ideographic because the overarching narratives and palimpsest are more overwritten and punctured.
–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’s complexities are multiple.
–By extension, to say we live in a less scandalous world of “spirit” rather than “Papa’s Spook” is true only as far as it goes. That is, counterfactuals are scandalous when the way things are read at present stops well short of all the rest.
Here’s a scandalous counterfactual–this of the 18th century Enlightener, Denis Diderot–with which to nudge even our own spirit 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 regard the beauty to which we owe the birth, incarnation of our Saviour and the grace of our redemption.
Manuel, F. E. (1967). The Eighteenth Century Confronts The Gods. Atheneum, New York, NY.
Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner. Edited by Edward M. Burns, 2 volumes (Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA; 2018).