On the Pleasures of Hating, American Style

“The white streak in our own fortunes is brightened (or just rendered visible) by making all around it as dark as possible; so the rainbow paints its form upon the cloud.”

—On the Pleasure of Hating, William Hazlitt

The leaders of nations are again whipping up hatred and though one may stoutly observe this circumstance is customary I don’t think the American variant of it is time worn. Donald Trump represents a national vanity, the disdain that comes at the ends of empires. The white streak in America’s fortunes is soiled and Trump’s boys fear they’re losing control of the census. Trump’s aspersions are steeped in rhetorics of scarcity and the terror of dark hordes. This is not to say that prior empires have been without their particular gloating rancor but Trump’s possessed by a vision of absolute scarcity built on a racialist proposition of thievery. He believes the colored peoples of the earth are stealing from America’s hard working white people. Victorian bigotry was built in large part around the idea that foreigners were sinister carriers of disease or represented chaos that must be contained—Dracula is a novel about the British fear of the east more than anything else. Trump’s Dracula is a hydra of ethnicities and yes, women and cripples and queers who seek to steal America’s vitality. In this way his hatred and its expression are vampiric. It is altogether fair to wonder if “The Donald” has ever donated blood.

Now another word for this kind of hatred is despair. After the murder MacBeth says: “For, from this instant,/ There’s nothing serious in mortality:/ All is but toys — renown and grace is dead.”
It’s the age for cowards. The hating coward feels no guilty remorse. it’s enough to have power. If this power is based on despair and has no nobility that is the way of it. Another way of saying there’s nothing serious in mortality is not to say life is cheap but that it has no grand purpose beyond the acquisition of personal power. It’s the rage of humiliation. In her unjustly overlooked book “Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals” Iris Murdoch wrote: “the condition (for instance as humiliation) may, almost automatically, be ‘alleviated’ by hatred, vindictive fantasies, plans of revenge, reprisal, a new use of energy. There is, which can be no less agonising, a guiltless remorse when some innocent action has produced an unforeseeable catastrophe. A common cause of void is bereavement, which may be accompanied by guilt feelings, or may be productive of a ‘clean’ pain. In such cases there is a sense of emptiness, a loss of personality, a loss of energy and motivation, a sense of being stripped, the world is utterly charmless and without attraction.” There can be no better description of Donald Trump and his gestalt than this.

The fish in the sea is not thirsty and Trump doesn’t know how stripped he is. He strips others—in every way. This is why his political imagination is joyless. He hates and his “base” as it’s called on television is thrilled. This is what Simone Weil called “malheur” a type of affliction. Hillary Clinton was wrong when she called Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters “a basket of deplorables” because most of them feel neglected, powerless, betrayed by the powerful, and so want little more than vengeance. All is but toys—Trump gives them the nursery of rage and it makes them real. One thinks of the commercial where an elderly woman has fallen and can’t get up. The poet Paul Valery: “the desire for vengeance is the desire for balance.”

Vengeance and balance, vindictive fantasies, cowardice, a loss of energy and motivation are the essential ingredients of the Trump pleasure principle. You might say these are primordial factors in the rise of Fascism but in America it is more accurate to call it a fetishized pissing contest.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Teaching in the Age of Trump

When I was very small I didn’t know that I’d meet people who wouldn’t like me until one day, climbing stairs with my father, my hand in his, we met an elderly Swedish woman who lived just below us and who said, “Tsk, Tsk” because I was blind. I was only four and it was winter in Helsinki, Finland. This was a foundational moment for me as such moments are for all sentient beings, its the very second we sense we’re not who we’ve met in the mirror, or having no mirror, we’re not exactly who our parents say we are. Cruelty is one way we arrive. It comes without warning like branches tapping a window. “She’s a fool,” my father said as if that solved the riddle of human embarrassment.

If you teach at the post-secondary level and care about soul (not all teaching concerns itself overtly with soulful things, nor should this be the case per se) you’re likely a stair climbing contrarian, the kind of professor who knows the Swedish dowagers both of history and the ones living next door. Knowing we’re incontestably faced with deviant personalities, people who, according to private or political history, have been rendered un-civic-minded is central to narrative literature and when properly encountered this can strengthen the ironies of  compassion. I swear, as a boy I felt sorry for my grey Swedish matron. She’s still (for me) the image of absolute loneliness. The reach of dramatic irony is broad in poetry and fiction and while it’s not my intention to sound new age-y the human soul needs all the nutrients it can get. Who hurt the old Swedish woman who lived downstairs? Was it her White Russian husband who beat her and her children and then died in middle age having drunk away her dowry?

No one should have the power to steal our compassion. Books alone won’t prevent the theft but they’re the perfect anodyne for thin skinned covetousness and envy, the two conditions most prevalent in hyper-consumerist, post-industrial economies. No one’s reading John Bunyan these days but he’s worth quoting: “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” Compassion is a muscle. It’s flexible when used. Employing it we enter wider circles.

In the Age of Trump we’ll need help with compassionate climbing. I do not single out students any more than faculty or administrators—all people of conscience are rightly confused by the wide and unrelenting brutishness we’re now seeing.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries, as the Dalai Lama has often said. Our survival both as individuals and communities will now depend on understanding this. Again, echoing the Dalai Lama, compassion is the radicalism of our time. It’s a radicalism that can be practiced daily. It’s also the hardest thing to put into action. “You must not hate those who do wrong or harmful things; but with compassion, you must do what you can to stop them — for they are harming themselves, as well as those who suffer from their actions.” (Dalai Lama)

Over the past few days I’ve been putting together a literary reading list for our present moment. I’ve been culling books that highlight the radicalism of what, for lack of a better term I’m calling compassionate irony. These poets, non-fictionists and fiction writers are assembled here in no discernible order—their work has come to me as I’ve walked in the public square. The public square is a steeper place now. I believe the following books are now necessities:

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer

James Lecesne:  Absolute Brightness

Toni Morrison:  Sula

Anne Finger:  Elegy for a Disease

Gail Godwin:  Father Melancholy’s Daughter

Colson Whitehead:  The Underground Railroad

Adrienne Rich:  An Atlas for the Difficult World

Jacqueline Woodson:  Another Brooklyn

Kurt Vonnegut Jr:  Slaughterhouse Five or The Children’s Crusade

Kwame Alexander:   The Crossover

James Baldwin:   Giovanni’s Room

Dorothy Allison:   One or Two Things I Know for Sure

Ralph Ellison:  Invisible Man

Saul Bellow:   The Adventures of Augie March

Azar Nafisi:    Reading Lolita in Tehran

Naguib Mahfouz:  The Cairo Trilogy

Sam Hamill: Habitations

Walt Whitman:  Leaves of Grass

Pema Chodron:  The Places That Scare You

Kenneth Rexroth:  Collected Poems

Deborah Tall:  A Family of Strangers

Kwame Dawes:  Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems

Mark Doty:  Fire to Fire

Wang Ping:  The Last Communist Virgin

Robert Bly:  My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy

Pablo Neruda:  Selected Poems

Bernard Malamud:  The Stories of Bernard Malamud

Anita Desai:  Clear Light of Day

John Banville:  The Sea

Thomas Hardy:  The Mayor of Casterbridge

John Irving:  The Cider House Rules

Richard Yates: A Good School

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Paule Marshall:  The Fisher King

W. H. Auden:  Collected Poems

Evelyn Waugh:  Brideshead Revisited

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:  Americanah

Salman Rushdie:  Midnight’s Children

Naoki Higashida:  The Reason I Jump

W. B. Yeats:  Collected Poems

Per Petterson:  Out Stealing Horses

Magda Szabo:   The Door

Tove Jansson:  The Summer Book

Majgull Axelsson:  April Witch

Jean-Dominique Bauby:  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Bruno Schulz:  Sanitarium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

Jerzy Ficowski:  Waiting for the Dog to Sleep

Gyula Krudy:  Sunflower

Chris Abani:  The Secret History of Las Vegas

Binyavanga Wainaina:  How to Write About Africa

Joan Didion:  The Year of Magical Thinking

Carlos Fuentes:  The Death of Artemio Cruz

Mo Yan:  Life and Death are Wearing Me Out

The list above is my start—a syllabus of the compassionate climb. You’ll notice I’ve left Kafka off but include Bruno Schultz. Left off Camus but included Carl Jung. One prefers the early Rushdie and Thomas Hardy before he elevated his wife to sainthood. Compassion resists Aristotelian templates—it doesn’t like being talked about. Like a milk snake it shines in its own way. Compassion is more than fellow feeling or empathy—it is mercy. All the books listed here are merciful. Please, start your own lists. Share them. The literatures of compassion are necessarily shared in a university without walls.

 

 

 

 

On Blogging in the Age of Trump

The Jungian psychoanalyst Marie-Louise Von Franz wrote a compelling book about men who have big bodies but remain children. Such men are often the life of the party, charming, at least at first. Then they tire of you (insert “children”; “wives”; “girl friends”;  “friends”) and jump ship (insert “leave home”; “skip town”) and find a new circle to hoodwink. While I know of no studies linking these “flying boys” (Von Franz’s term) with sexual assault, it’s a good bet that groping, rape, violence, and child abuse are all parts of their embodied politic.

So I’m in mind of these matters post election, 2016. In mind of boys who stay boys, embittered, predatory, loud, bullying. In mind of America’s contemporary addiction to public relations and self-branding, both of which are deeply tied to the “boy-man complex.” Every journalist or public intellectual in America who covers local, state, or national politics, human rights or business, or sports, or yes, higher education, should read Von Franz’s book about the terrifying reality and devastating consequences of the boy-man epidemic.

Anais Niin once said: “I hate men who are afraid of women’s strength.” Without knowing it she was referring to flying boys. At the risk of sounding like Robert Bly, true men are aware of their failings and capable of bravely addressing them. For my money, what little I may have, what’s so disturbing about Trumpism is it’s fealty to collective, loud, masculine weakness. Bigotry and bullying belong to the ten year old boy or the “mean girls” who emulate them.

So what does blogging mean in the age of Trump? Say you’re a human rights activist and modestly recognized public figure, a poet, someone who believes in the American intellectual tradition of John Dewey and Doris Lessing. The morning after Trump’s victory I thought of these lines from Lessing’s Golden Notebook:

“Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.”

What does blogging mean now? To stay more robust and individual and when you’re encouraged to leave, do so in the quest of your own best education rather than adhering obediently to the narrow and particular needs of dominant culture. Trumpists believe this is what they’ve done, that they’ve bravely taken on fictional “elites” but they’ve merely leaned into the spit of baby boy adolescence. Spit is the language of resentments and playground canards.

Gloria Steinem (who is not without her flaws as I am not without my own) said: “Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke . . . She will need her sisterhood.”

Sisterhood yes. And grown men. More of Steinem: “Women may be the one group that grows more radical with age.” Is it too much to expect our nation’s boys to grow into individuated free thinking men? No.

I will continue to blog in the service of this very idea.