Political Melancholy

The Fall 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly has arrived in the mail, it’s theme: Politics. I consider LQ a guilty pleasure. Guilty because Lewis Lapham is a bit much sometimes, and because it’s expensive and takes up space we can hardly spare; but pleasure because it has such a nice smell, such a soft cover, and is so indulgently, gorgeously illustrated. Holding it, flipping through the pages, reminds you what a beautiful object a print periodical can be.

If you’re not familiar with LQ, it’s a magazine produced on the cheap, at least when it comes to paying its contributors, since most of them are dead. The bulk of each issue’s 200 or so pages are filled with well-chosen passages from authors of times past. “Contributors” to the current number – who run the gamut in brow elevation – include Solon, Emma Goldman, Gil Scott-Heron, Mark Twain, Montesquieu, Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, Malcolm X, Monty Python, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, H.L. Mencken, and (everyone’s fave) Notker the Stammerer, who flourished in the ninth century. This is like calling Montaigne and P.G. Wodehouse “contributors” to this blog because I quote them so often.

Politics, I said, was the theme, and of course it’s just what we need more of right now. Please, yes, more politics. Having suffered through a year plus of presidential electioneering and three very special televised debates, politics is the one thing none of us can get enough of. So, thank you, Mr Lapham. Really, it’s like treating a cold with a juicy cough in the face.

And yet, and yet… I open the pages and admit there is a same-as-it-ever-was kind of comfort in the words of founding mother Abigail Adams, wife to our second and mother to our sixth president. This from a 1775 letter:

I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature, and that power, whether vested in many or few, is ever grasping, and like the grave cries ‘Give, give!’ The great fish swallow up the small, and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.

Dear Mrs Adams! Such a graceful ager! I thought so ever since you were played by Laura Linney (opposite the immortal Paul Giamatti) in the 2008 John Adams miniseries. But who’s this now, Abby? Step aside and let’s make space for Mr Mencken, late of Baltimore, who comes in the person of Democritus Americanus to guffaw at the tragicomical farce of our benighted polity. God bless, he intones, our sacred candidates on the stump:

They will all promise every man, woman, and child in the country whatever he, she, or it wants. They’ll all be roving the land looking for chances to make the rich poor, to remedy the irremediable, to succor the unsuccorable, to unscramble the unscrambleable, to dephlogisticate the undephlogisticable. They will all be curing warts by saying words over them and paying off the national debt with money that no one will have to earn. They will all know by then, even supposing that some of them don’t know it now, that votes are collared under democracy not by talking sense but by talking nonsense, and they will apply themselves to the job with a hearty yo-heave-ho.

It’s said we get the leaders we deserve. Mencken might agree, despite not coining the phrase himself. Personally, I guess we’ve been luckier than that on balance. But to think poorly of our elected representatives, and express ourselves in that direction, is a time-honored American tradition. Likewise, lamenting the decay of the present era relative to days of yore is a pastime of Homeric antiquity. Mostly, in our own case, it’s bunk. If we can survive the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the 1970s, I think we’ll survive the next few years, whether the election-day map is red or blue.

Every generation, however, has its special pathology, its popular malaise. Yesterday aboard my commuter train, while reading Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Renaissance Essays, I think I may have hit on our own diagnosis. In his piece on Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Trevor-Roper notes Burton’s admiration, from a bookish distance, for the Dutch and Swiss society of his day:

Those admired societies, in so far as they were active and industrious, animated by a desire for improvement, were, he believed, ‘free from melancholy’. From which it appears that ‘melancholy’ is not merely a temporary depression of spirits but a kind of pervasive social inertia, an incapacity for deliberate self-improvement and rational activity.

“An incapacity for deliberate self-improvement and rational activity.” Yes, this sounds about right: melancholy not as a merely personal burden but as a social malady, the reigning humor of a nation.

Burton has his special chapters on love melancholy and religious melancholy. If he were American and writing today, perhaps he would give us a chapter on the subject of political melancholy. The disease, I suspect, is untreatable at the state or federal levels. Though collectively expressed, it is rooted in individual cases. Personal treatment is necessary by personalized means. We can only wonder what a national cure might look like.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Political Melancholy

  1. Great post! I love that Abigail Adams quote.

  2. I’d love to read you parse, even briefly, how “Lewis Lapham is a bit much sometimes.”

    • Ian Wolcott

      I’m probably not really entitled to an opinion on Mr Lapham. I sometimes enjoy him, but though he writes some good sentences, he’s a bit cynical. I’m better at tolerating my own cynicism. My politics in general, however, are unsophisticated and poorly defined.

    • Ian Wolcott

      In case you’re interested, Owen, there’s a new Smithsonian article on Lapham:

      http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Lewis-Laphams-Antidote-to-the-Age-of-Buzzfeed-174943751.html

      Quote: “We learn from each other, right? I think that the value is in the force of the imagination and the power of expression. I mean…the hope of social or political change stems from language that induces a change of heart. That’s the power of words and that’s a different power than the power of the Internet. And I’m trying to turn people on to those powers and it’s in language.”

  3. Dude. You are absolutely brilliant. Mencken as “Democritus Americanus” — did you come up with that?

    Great analysis. And about LQ, I want a subscription but don’t want to shell out the dough. Thanks for this summation of the “politics” edition.

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