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Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Lincoln cats ≠ Lincoln buffs

So, Mollpeartree dropped in for a visit and saw "a blogging Lincoln buff." But fireflies and shooting starsthingsthe owls—are not what they seem.

Lord Buckley, a cat who swung "with the rhythm of love of life," was—like "the great and precious American Saint Abraham Lincoln" himself—a great lover of humor and beauty. In the prelude to his translation of the Gettysburg Address into "the modern somatic of the hip, this new zig-zag somatic," he hips us to why he grooves on this strange, ambitious, melancholy man, this politician and railroad lawyer who prided himself for his mastery of Euclid, achieved excellence as a prose stylist, and oversaw America's horrible bloodbath of a Great War and the abolition of the evil institution of slavery:
I dig old sweet long lanky non-stop Abe. "Lanky Linc" dey call da cat back in dem days. Well Lanky Linc went to a speechafyin' one time and had a little MIS-understandin'. Dere was an LP type talkin' cat named Eddy Everet. And dis here cat got up on de podium and wailed away and beat on his chops for so long and so loud that he shaved the place twenty-seven times, rearranged it nine, and adjust it twice, and da cat is still up dere beatin' on his chops, and Lanky Linc is sittin' down in da bleachers goofin' with his scratch pad, tryin' to get somethin down.

And he's gettin' somethin down.

But, what he's gettin' down ain't movin' him.

But when dey called old Lanky Linc up to de podium and he dug all dem cats and kitties swingin' on the green sward, great love look come on his Saint face, and he put dis issue down to 'em, he say:

Four big hits and seven licks ago, our before-daddies swung forth upon this sweet groovey land a jumpin', wailin', stompin', swingin' new nation, hip to the cool sweet groove of liberty
and solid sent upon the Ace lick dat all cats and kitties, red, white, or blue, is created level in front.

That's Lord Buckley's transformation of this:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

What Buckley made new is better heard than seen, and it's all good.

I am interested in such transformations. I am interested in the ideas and ideals that "Lanky Linc" articulated and affirmed. I am interested in the cultural styles and currents that Buckley was a part of, the rhythms and the sweet swinging music of it all, fresh and open and free. And I am interested in the intersection—as in Buckley's "Gettysburg Address"—of those styles and this vision: the promise that all men and women be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that a government of the people, by the people, for the people secures and protects these rights; that a new birth of freedom is an ever-present possibility; that we may move on with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right; and the hope that we may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations, with equality, liberty, and justice for all, justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

The figure of Abraham Lincoln embodies this dream. His words at Gettysburg reaffirmed the promise made in the Declaration of Independence but negated by the Constitution. One hundred years later another great American stood in his symbolic shadow, dramatized the shameful betrayal of this promise, and demanded that the promissory note be, at last, redeemed.

The work we are in is never over. And this is not an easy time. There are still checks to cash. There are serious dangers. And there are real opportunities which are being missed.

With that reality in mind, I have undertaken a project these past two years in accordance with this principle:
If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.

"Lincoln cat" is meant to be one manifestation of this ambition and I hope that this figure can be built up as a symbol for what, then, must be done, and how to begin going about doing it. At the very least, the discipline of writing with this kind of focus should help me get more clear about things, and perhaps to find out whether there are any other would-be lincoln cats out there.

For now, I'll let this stand as a provisional statement of intent. Next time, I'll talk about putting the "cat" in "lincoln cat." And then I'll try to sort out what's Lincolnian, and what isn't, in my idea of a lincoln cat.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Age of Velvet?

In the midst of extensive coverage of the situation in Georgia, Cinderella Bloggerfeller thinks he glimpses a sea change:
Maybe it's too early to make generalisations but it seems there has been a major historical change over the past decade and a half. The role model for revolutions is now not the French or the Russian (i.e. revolution inevitably means a bloodbath, with the assumption that this is a Good Thing) but the bloodless, "Velvet" revolutions in Eastern Europe of 1989 (the exception, of course, being Romania- and it might still come to that in Georgia, but let's hope not).

Friday, November 21, 2003

Reconciliation

Glenn's post about the American experience of reconciliation prompted me at long last to disavow Thomas Pynchon's favorite deadly sin. Earlier in the day I had pasted some excerpts from The Education of Henry Adams in the comments thread of a post at A Fistful of Euros about The World in 1856 and the continuities one can see between that past and our shared present. Then I saw Glenn's post and the notes from Walt Whitman about European attitudes during the Civil War, and Bush was heading for London, and the stars arranged themselves portentously, so I sent the Lincoln Cat out into the alley, dropped my hook in the waters, and reaped the avalanche. If you enjoyed those bits below from Henry Adams, there are a few more in that comments thread. And, alas, some characteristic examples of what I was getting at in the post about ratcheting down the rhetoric.

Meanwhile, in a more substantial response to Glenn's post, Donald Sensing has a lengthy treatment of reconciliation between North and South.

Once upon a time I was required to write a essay on the Reconstruction in an undergrad class on American History (in England, ironically). You had to write it as counterfactual history: a narrative of the period of Reconstruction as it unfolded under the leadership of an unassassinated Lincoln. There are some thoughts on the might-have-beens in the comments thread for Donald's post, and still more on thinking about the Civil War in relation to Europe, a subject which--for circumstantial reasons--I've become fascinated with of late.

At the end of Donald's post, he mentions--but does not discuss--the issue of whether the reconciliation between North and South is actually complete. And perhaps it is. But it's clear that the other reconciliation, the one which the war itself was, somehow, about, is not yet altogether accomplished. Here's how it looked to Richard Wright in the mid-1920s:
One day I went to the optical counter of a department store to deliver a pair of eyeglasses. The counter was empty of customers and a tall, florid-faced white man looked at me curiously. He was unmistakably a Yankee, for his physical build differed sharply from that of the lanky Southerner.

"Will you please sign for this, sir?" I asked, presenting the account book and the eyeglasses.

He picked up the book and the glasses, but his eyes were still upon me.

"Say, boy, I'm from the North," he said quietly.

I held very still. Was this a trap? He had mentioned a tabooed subject and I wanted to wait until I knew what he meant. Among the topics that southern white men did not like to discuss with Negroes were the following: American white women; the Ku Klux Klan; France, and how the Negro soldiers fared while there; French-women; Jack Johnson; the entire northern part of the United States; the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln; U.S. Grant; General Sherman; Catholics; the Pope; Jews; the Republican party; slavery; social equality; Communism; Socialism; the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution; or any topic calling for positive knowledge or manly self-assertion on the part of the Negro. The most accepted topics were sex and religion. I did not look at the man or answer. With one sentence he had lifted out of the silent dark the race question and I stood on the edge of a precipice. [Black Boy, pp. 230-1]

Flashing forward to our own era, through all that has been achieved and won, we still have, as a legacy, the reality described in this book, discussed here by David Adesnik of Oxblog.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Musée des Beaux Arts

André Glucksmann's words about politics and suffering and literature--in Adam Gopnik's New Yorker piece on the anti-anti-Americans--brought Auden's famous poem to mind.
Glucksmann believes that the only worthwhile “political” project is the constant, unrelenting, and most probably futile amelioration of obvious suffering. “It’s very odd that the idea of the doctor, and of medicine, predates by thousands of years the actual ability of doctors to help anyone in more than small ways. Why should it be?” he said once in a conversation. “Well, it’s because we recognize the presence of evil as being stronger than the promise of a cure. The simple Hippocratic oath, ‘First, do no harm,’ is a far, far more radical sentence in the history of thought than it seems. It recognizes the existence of evil—illness—that is in many ways beyond our control. It is the opposite of magical thinking, witch-doctor think, which promises to make well, to cure. ‘Do no harm’ is the truly radical sentence; ‘Cultivate your garden’ the unforgivable one.”

Above all, literature is for him the natural model of thought: he sees history through the lens of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky and Aristophanes.

Here's the poem:
Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

And here's the painting.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Agenda Bender recently expressed a thought I've been thinking about (although the row of beans I'm hoeing lies on a rather different plot than the garden of demons or delights whose loss he laments):
Every era looks back on the obvious mistakes of previous eras with satisfaction. Until the realization sinks in that the mistakes must not have been so obvious then. Once you reach that level of awareness, an even more unsettling and deeply sunk realization will probably surface: we are making obvious mistakes too, obvious to the future, invisible to us.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Ratcheting the rhetoric down

In contrast, here's a bit about old sweet long lanky non-stop Abe, from this book (pp. 179, 181, 184-5):
Lincoln recognized the evils of war even in the "best wars." The Mexican War was evil throughout. But the Revolution, the war of "the fathers," was also a dark and cruel transaction:
It breathed forth famine, swam in blood, and rode on fire; and long, long after, the orphan's cry and the widow's wail continued to break the sad silence that ensued.

Lincoln, the war leader, was nonviolent in most ways. He knew how violence works people beyond their original intent.

[...]

He had no illusions about war's "nobility." It is a cover for other crimes. And the longer it goes on, the more it outraces any rational purpose. Even noble yearnings serve savagery--as Lee's power to inspire made sure that the South would be more thoroughly drained of its best men and treasure. Lincoln's descriptions show that he understood the inner dynamics of war, what Clausewitz called Wechselwirkung--the way each side is wraught upon by the other: "Each side, therefore, compels its opponent to follow suit; a reciprocal action [Wechselwirkung] is started which must lead, in theory, to extremes." Superficially, at least, not only the Civil War, but Lincoln's conduct of it, serves to confirm this gloomy observation.

Reversing Clausewitz's famous dictim, Chou En-lai said that "all diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means." Perhaps it would be taking things a bit too far to assimilate politics as such to warfare. But right now partisan passions are running so very high in certain streams, and many minds are so possessed by hatreds, and some of the important political dynamics seem so clearly to manifest "the inner dynamics of war," that perhaps it makes sense to speak of a war within the United States, and one between the United States and parts of Europe, and also of much (but not all) of the internationally-minded left against the US.

So perhaps now would be a good time to reflect, to take stock, and to consider this precedent for the way we talk about what we are presently in the midst of:
In a situation where heightening animosities (Wechselwirkung) tend to ratchet up the rhetoric, the demands, the righteousness of combatants, Lincoln deliberately ratchets down the claims that can be made by himself and the nation. He asks people to fight a repenting war:
May we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation on a whole people?

It is this counterrhetoric of joint responsibility for the historical sin of slavery that gives Lincoln's last great statement on the war its tortured radiance.

After all, one of the tragedies of our current predicament is that many who find themselves viscerally opposed to each other seek the same end: to "achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

Lincoln in London

George Bush, the most recent Republican president, is going to London, as I'm sure most everybody knows. Comments about the visit can be found at Harry's Place and the blogs of Oliver Kamm and Norman Geras.

Here's how the first Republican president was seen in London:

For some reason partly connected with American sources, British society had begun with violent social prejudice against Lincoln, Seward, and all the republican leaders except Sumner. Familiar as the whole tribe of Adamses had been for three generations with the impenetrable stupidity of the British mind, and wary of the long struggle to teach it its own interests, the fourth generation could still not quite persuade itself that this new British prejudice was natural. The private secretary suspected that Americans in New York and Boston had something to do with it. The copperhead was at home in Pall Mall. Naturally the Englishman was a course animal and liked coarseness. Had Lincoln and Seward been the ruffians supposed, the average Englishman would have liked them the better.

[...]

London was altogether beside itself on one point, in especial; it created a nightmare of its own, and gave it the shape of Abraham Lincoln. Behind this it placed another demon, if possible more devilish, and called it Mr. Seward. In regard to these two men, English society seemed demented. Defense was useless; explanation was vain; one could only let the passion exhaust itself. One’s best friends were as unreasonable as enemies, for the belief in poor Mr. Lincoln’s brutality and Seward’s ferocity became a dogma of popular faith. The last time Henry Adams saw Thackeray, before his sudden death at Christmas in 1863, was in entering the house of Sir Henry Holland for an evening reception. Thackeray was pulling on his coat downstairs, laughing because, in his usual blind way, he had stumbled into the wrong house and not found it out till he shook hands with old Sir Henry, whom he knew very well, but who was not the host he expected. Then his tone changed as he spoke of his—and Adams’s—friend Mrs. Frank Hampton of South Carolina, whom he had loved as Sally Baxter and painted as Ethel Newcome. Though he had never quite forgiven her marriage, his warmth of feeling revived when he heard that she had died of consumption at Columbia while her parents and sister were refused permission to pass through the lines to see her. In speaking of it, Thackeray’s voice trembled and his eyes filled tears. The coarse cruelty of Lincoln and his hirelings was notorious. He never doubted that the Federals made a business of harrowing the tenderest feelings of women—particularly of women—in order to punish their opponents. On quite insufficient evidence he burst into violent reproach. Had Adams carried in his pocket the proofs that the reproach was unjust, he would have gained nothing by showing them. At that moment, Thackeray and all London society with him, needed the nervous relief of expressing emotion; for if Mr. Lincoln was not what they said he was,--what were they?

For like reason, the members of the Legation kept silence, even in private, under the boorish Scotch jibes of Carlyle. If Carlyle was wrong, his diatribes would give his true measure, and this measure would be a low one, for Carlyle was not likely to be more sincere or more sound in one thought than in another. The proof that a philosopher does not know what he is talking about is apt to sadden his followers before it reacts on himself. Demolition of one’s idols is painful, and Carlyle had been an idol. Doubts cast on his stature spread far into general darkness like shadows of a setting sun. Not merely the idols fell, but also the habits of faith. If Carlyle, too, was a fraud, what were his scholars and school?

[...]

The matter of quarrel was General Butler’s famous woman-order at New Orleans, but the motive was the belief in President Lincoln’s brutality that had taken such deep root in the British mind.

That's from The Education of Henry Adams.


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