Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dramatic Criticism

The “No Drama Obama” meme is unintentionally revealing. It’s meant to suggest steadiness, but what it more truly reflects is disengagement, impersonality, lack of decision, lack of action – the lack, in other words, of all those qualities of which drama is the chief imaginative form. The literary genre this guy embodies isn’t drama, but lyric poetry – and of a prosaic, intransitive and convention-based, rather than personal, sort. There are a lot more adjectives and abstract nouns than verbs here. Not much speech-action goin’ down.

I am thinking of this because I just finished reading Dreams from My Father, and I’m not one whit closer to an understanding of who this person actually is than I was before I opened the book. As advertised, it is elegantly written, but detached, opaque, impersonal – despite being an autobiography. Its literary elegance disguises rather than reveals.

At first, we think we’re going to get some insight into his head and heart – and I went into it genuinely open to that. I want to love the one I’m (perforce) with. But what we get, instead of self-expression, is a series of reflections on race, mostly in the form of emblematic scenes from his life, each of which illustrates some political point, each of which has the same hedged, muted, multi-perspective aura. In what is by far the most engaging part of the book – its final section, describing his first trip to Kenya – Barack himself is largely absent. He steps aside to let the stage (or, rather, page) be filled by his relatives. The highlight of the section is an extended quote – a narrative putatively delivered by his aunt, covering the last couple of generations of the family’s history.

This is, I think, every bit as much of a campaign document as The Audacity of Hope – even if it was written ten years earlier. Barack Obama, it seems clear, set his mind on becoming President of the United States at an early age, and has been single-mindedly pursuing that goal for his entire adult life. It’s an impressive pursuit, and a successful one. Nothing wrong with that. Ambition comes with the territory. But there’s nothing very persuasive or reassuring about it, either, for anybody who wanted to elect an actual factual Democrat, a new FDR.

This is a man whose true genius is hiding in plain sight. (For anybody who is familiar with Sigurd Burckhardt’s famous essay on King Lear, “The Quality of Nothing,” Obama is the perfect anti-Lear, the antithesis of a figure constitutionally incapable of mediacy. He may vote “present,” but he can’t be present. He’s almost too post-modern, too Derridean, too palpably the presence of an absence.)

It doesn’t matter what he does. He can talk for hours, joke around, expose himself to the world’s media, be the focus object for millions of hungry souls… he can even write entire books on himself… and yet he recedes ever farther from actual view. Is this a skill, or a psychiatric condition? I don’t think it can be a sham. Nobody could pull that off. He really must be so terrified of what lies inside, must have sealed it up so tight, that he himself hasn’t the first idea who’s in there.

Thing is, he’s now in a place where there’s a better-than-even chance that it’ll be smoked out. He has walked out onto the stage, one of the biggest and barest of them all. It’s not easy to hide there, maybe impossible. And there's a fellow whispering in the cellarage -- only this ghost isn't saying, "Remember me." This one is saying, “Nothing will come of nothing.”

One can only wonder what play is going to be spawned by whoever this protagonist turns out to be.

8 comments:

David Berger said...

I can't claim I occupy the same lofty literary and philosophical parapets that you do, but I think I get what your saying. The "idea" of Obama has always been far more compelling than the man himself. And does it not seem that the power of that idea has steadily receded, not just since the election, but since his nomination (you could even say, justifiably, since Super Tuesday)? Crises at home and abroad have a funny way of pricking the bubble of inflated mythologies.

I expect to see Obama steadily shrink in office. Inauguration Day will almost have a nostalgic feel, one last effort to recapture the zeitgeist last felt in the snows of Iowa and Wisconsin. But I think that as a President, Obama will not tower over the world stage by 2010, but be a meek part of the landscape.

Falstaff said...

I was less focused here on his public profile/impact than I was speculating on the psychology underlying it -- hence the Shakespearean Rag. In other words, instead of seeing Obama as an "empty suit" from a policy standpoint, as I (and others) have been wont to do, I'm thinking here about what actual person might/must be inside him -- since everyone is, after all, somebody. And with that as a frame of reference, it's possible to get a lot more afraid about what may lie ahead of us than your scenario projects. Or not...

Mike J. said...

I think he is someone who started out on the far left, then gradually drifted to the right where he still remains. I'm not sure whether he did it out of conviction or opportunism.

I also think he's figured out that there is a market for a telegenic African-American guy willing to advance a conservative agenda (worked for Powell, Thomas, and Rice, after all...), except that he took it one step further and actually rose to the top of the Democratic Party, correctly sensing (or being recruited for the position) that he could be The One those desperate to derail Hillary Clinton's presidential bid have been waiting for...

redscott said...

I think the key word you used in your riff on the "no drama" meme was disengagement. Particularly in the case of some of the A-List Blogger Boiz who sold out to Obama early and who extol this theme, "no drama" means no emotional or visceral commitment to economic or social justice, no sense that lives teetering on the brink of economic or social ruin are at stake these days. Instead what's celebrated is an inside- baseball mode of analyzing how the political game is being played rather than what the gane is about or what it's actually going to produce for real people. I find it faux-cerebral, bloodless, and disconnected from what's going on here at home and in desperate places like Iraq and Gaza. The problem with this meme/style is that it doesn't seem to get how disturbing these events are and OUGHT to be on an emotional level. And if you don't get that, you won't give enough of a shit and have the emotional energy to do anything about it.

David Berger said...

Well, in Obama's defense, I would say that anybody who occupies the position of Messiah has to appear somewhat detached... because creating real emotional connections ultimately drains your energy. There is an element of performance art at work here. Ronald Reagan was famously "unknowable" to his children, and I think a very similar dynamic is at play.

I think part of your point, however, is that Obama has cultivated this detachment from a young age, before he was even Destined for Greatness... and such hollowness is troubling. But FWIW, he seems to drop that mask when he talks about his children and family, so there must be some sort of "there" there...

Falstaff said...

David -- I don't actually see the mask dropping even then. After all, he wrote an entire book about his family, his parents, his childhood... and yet he himself never really appears, not as a particular, emotionally comprehensible human being.

Also, I would disagree that Messiah-hood is inherently emotionally opaque. What about Evita? Lenin? Hitler?

But, then, that's not my topic in this post. I'm not starting with his ideology -- sincere or faked, empty or full of ideas -- nor with the the notion that he's manipulating his image or consciously engaging in performance art. That's the conscious brain at work. I'm wondering what's underneath that, who the guy really is. He is preternaturally repressed. What's he repressing? Not that he's a closet Republican. It's something a lot deeper and scarier than that. And the press of events and his new position may well expose it -- to him, as well as to us.

Here's hoping...

redscott said...

It's a little weird, given how much the MSM has played up the Obama v. Clinton meme, but Obama in one particular way reminds me of Bill Clinton. Both, for reasons of race or class, were outsiders who from their youth onward have struck me as almost desperately eager to pile up the sort of credentials (educational, professional, financial, electoral) to join the Establishment. In political terms, too, both Clinton and Obama have been very eager (Third Way, post-partisanship) not to strike any notes that may be too dissonant or "radical" (ie liberal) for our political and cultural "leaders." I give Clinton a little more credit for being more coflicted about it, because he had enough empathy with and understanding of the problems of forgotten Americans whom he grew up with that it motivated at least some of his actions (see Earned Income Tax Credit, for example). With Obama I see a much more unalloyed drive for personal success untempered by any specific commitments to larger economic and social justice. Like a lot of comers and strivers in American politics, his god is the greasy pole, and his goal is to climb it and to reap the plaudits of the Establishment for doing it. Maybe you're right, and he's repressing things that might come up later. My more jaundiced view is that he turned his back long ago on the multiracial kid with a single mom and modest means in favor of the Harvard grad, the lawyer, the Senator, and the President. Flush, and it ain't coming up again.

Falstaff said...

Redscott - I agree about those similarities -- and I don't think you're being cynical at all. And what you're saying is actually a lot more hopeful than what I'm saying (or speculating about) here. After all, a charlatan or striver is still a rational being. He or she is reasonably in touch with his or her wishes, feelings, sense of self. But somebody who is as deeply repressed as he seems to me to be might be pretty crazy. And pretty crazy people with massive power are scary.

Of course, that's when you get actual, er, drama. Nobody's really interested in plays about political issues. It's madness that makes for great theater.