Tricksters

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Wisdom from Two Masters

How’s the Apocalypse working for you? My only surprise is the celerity with which it has unfolded; with such speed, the waters must have risen around Noah’s Ark during the Deluge. But I am taken aback by the surprised alarums of our clown dynasty and eminent members of the media who are shocked—shocked!—at the avalanche of lies emanating from the White House.

What did we expect? Anyone who has dealt with a used car salesman or with a drummer selling swamp land in Florida knows Trump. Any woman who has had to fend off unwanted advances from a leering “gentleman crook” who mutters “Now don’t get scared, lady, I ain’t gonna crack you on the bean!” recognizes the type.[1]

To admirers of Dashiell Hammett, the Trump Apocalypse is not a surprise. As an operative for Pinkerton’s detective agency, Hammett came in contact with the Underworld of North American society. His novels portray crooks, thieves, murderers, pick-pockets, swindlers, forgers and assorted criminals with all the precision of a chronicler who has experienced what he writes about. (more…)

Trump’s Prophetic Trope

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Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Death, Famine, War, and Conquest, an 1887 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We have used the symbol of apocalypse at Hunt the Devil to frame the political ascendency of Donald Trump in mythic terms. It is a rich and resonant symbol, a metaphor with multiple entailments, both religious and secular, each entangled with the others. Its mythos is relevant to interpreting the crisis of US empire that is reflected in Trump’s rise to the presidency.

The imperial presidency itself is a metaphorical precursor of the Trump phenomenon, a term for excessive executive power, which gained popularity in the 1960s and found voice in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s 1973 book by that title. The power of the presidency exceeded its constitutional limits consistent with the transformation of the republic into an empire. With empire came war culture and the normalization of continuous warfare. (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Jacob Wrestles with the Angel

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“Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” by Alexander Louis Leloir, 1865. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When Jacob was journeying to the land of his father and kinsmen, he met the “angels of god” in a place called Mahanaim. When he was informed that this brother Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob was “greatly afraid and distressed,” for there was past enmity between Jacob and his brother. He sent his people and their retinue ahead. On the night when he passed over the ford Jabbok, he sent his wife, his servants and his eleven sons to cross over the brook and remained alone (KJ Gen., 32:2 and 7).

Then Jacob “wrestled” with a man until the “breaking of the day.” The man did not prevail against him, but touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and caused it to come out of joint. Still Jacob persisted, until at the first sight of dawn, the man asked to be released from their struggle. And Jacob said: “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” (KJ Gen., 32:24-26).

The man replied: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” Jacob received the blessing from the strange man, for “he blessed him there.” Only then did he realize he had wrestled with an angel: “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” He called the place Penuel, and as he passed from it “the sun rose upon him and he halted upon his thigh” (KJ Gen., 32: 28-31).

What lessons can be learned from the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel? (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Joseph the Dreamer

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“Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1880. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the Catholic pantheon, the cult of Saint Joseph has three aspects: head of family, worker, and dreamer. In the gospel of Matthew, during the days of the birth of Christ, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph three, perhaps four times (KJ Matthew, chs. 1-2): (more…)

The Wall

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Donald Trump signs Executive Order 13767. (Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security)

We will build a big, beautiful wall.

A great, great wall on our southern border. Big: thirty feet tall, six feet deep. Long: nearly two thousand miles, spanning mountains, canyons, rivers, lakes, floodplains, and desert lands. Strong: built to deter tunneling, prevent scaling, and withstand tampering. Beautiful: on the north side. Free: paid for by Mexico, or not, in the amount of twelve billion dollars, maybe twenty-one, maybe forty. Border secured. No more undocumented immigrants, criminals, or drugs. (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Practical Business Men

Schottische Scharfschützen auf Lauer (April 1918).

Scottish snipers in World War I, April 1918. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Heartbreak House is not merely the name of a play,” wrote George Barnard Shaw in the preface to his masterpiece. “It is cultured, leisured Europe before the war.” The play was neither published nor performed until after the cessation of hostilities in World War I. Shaw’s given reasons are clear:

War cannot bear the terrible castigation of comedy, the ruthless light of laughter that glares on the stage. When men are heroically dying for their country, it is not the time to shew [sic] their lovers and wives and fathers and mothers how they are being sacrificed to the blunders of boobies, the cupidity of capitalists, the ambition of conquerors, the electioneering of demagogues, the Pharisaism of patriots, the lusts and lies and rancors and bloodthirsts that love war because it opens their prison doors, and sets them in the thrones of power and popularity. [1]

Soon after WWI, while “the earth [was] still bursting with the dead bodies of the victors,” Shaw recounted the history of the war “not in the field, but at home,” in one of his most scornful sallies against war: “Thus were the firstborn of Heartbreak House smitten; and the young, the innocent, the hopeful expiated the folly and worthlessness of their elders.”

Re-reading the preface to Heartbreak House today (“Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall”) one is besieged by the eerie sensation produced by prophecy, by the startling notion that history may repeat itself once again, but in reverse order. (more…)

Escape

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The Pentagon, 12 January 2008. (Credit: David B. Gleason)

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and now Donald Trump—all of whom grew up on Hollywood’s spectacle of America winning wars ad infinitum and none of whom fought in an actual war—“managed to remain quite deeply embedded in centuries of triumphalist frontier mythology.”

We’re still stuck in the fantasy of “an American world of forever war.”

Tom Engelhardt, “Rebecca Gordon, War Without End,” March 7, 2017

 

I was struck, while reading one of Peter Zhang’s exploratory essays and thinking about US war culture, by the metaphor of escape.[i] Escape is just one figure in Zhang’s extended comparison of Deleuze to Zen. The spirit of the essay’s multiple analogies is heuristic, especially for escaping debilitating conventions of political culture. (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: God Save Ireland! (Part Two)

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Bundoran Strand Co. Donegal, with surfers, on the Atlantic west coast of Ireland, June 2010. (Credit: Osioni / Wikimedia Commons)

(Bundoran, January 2017) George Bernard Shaw first led us to the National Gallery of Ireland, where a statue of the Irish sage (the very semblance of the ghost that haunted me) welcomes visitors. In his last will, Shaw donated a third of the royalties from his plays to the Gallery, “to which I owe much of the only real education I ever got as a boy In Eire.” I had always expected that if one were to meet the ghost of Shaw it would be in London, where he spent so many years, rather than in Dublin, which he left behind in his twenties and about which he would write:

To this day my sentimental regard for Ireland does not include the capital. I am not enamored of failure, of poverty, of obscurity, and of the ostracism and contempt which these imply; and these were all that Dublin offered to the enormity of my unconscious ambition.[1]

When we boarded a bus to the seafront town of Bundoran in the eastern coast of Ireland, I thought we had left the ghost of Shaw behind. (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: God Save Ireland!

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General Post Office, Dublin, Ireland. (Credit: Kaihsu Tai)

(Dublin, January 2017) Weathering under the foul winds of the Trump Apocalypse, I have been improving my soul by a visit to the Land of the Saints. One never comes to Ireland for the first time; one merely returns to a place as familiar as the fading memories of your grandfather’s or grandmother’s house.

At the airport the cabdriver greets you with a welcome and a broad smile. You have been told to mistrust the joviality of the Irish; it is a caricature—you have been told—used to control foreigners. But you cannot help to respond agreeably: when was the last time you were greeted by a cabdriver in the States with anything but a surly expression?

After pleasantries the talk inevitably turns to the recent US election. In gentle terms, the cabdriver expresses his unbelief at the fact that we spurned a candidate as intelligent and prepared as Hillary Clinton and elected a “crazy man” as president. I heard the underlying tenor of his words: it was the same one yelled indignantly by W.B. Yeats at the rioting crowds in the Abbey Theatre upon the premiere of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars: “You have disgraced yourselves—again!”

I couldn’t agree more, and therefore hung my head in shame. (more…)

The Distraction of Trump

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“The Conjurer,” oil on canvas, by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1496-1520. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

There is a lot not to like about the new president. His boorish persona and proclivity to wreak havoc are a major source of stress, unless you are one of his joyful supporters. Trump the President is a polarizing figure, but his political clownery is also a distraction from the deeper challenges facing the nation and the world at large.

Trump’s circus act gets all the attention. Rome built the colosseum to distract plebeians from the empire’s economic and political problems by entertaining them with bloody displays of gladiator combat. The famous Tivoli amusement park was built in mid-19th century Copenhagen to divert the people’s attention from politics. Billion dollar football stadiums in the US are venues for mixing blood sport with patriotic display. Entertainment, often fused with military ritual (Roger Stahl calls it “militainment”), sidetracks the deliberation of public policy. (more…)