Friday, May 22, 2020

L'Ecriture Humaine: Schitt's Creek as the humane

“The essence of egalitarianism is rejection of the idea that one person has the right to exercise power over another.” Samuel Huntington 

"It didn't matter what the words were; or who sang what. Round and round they whirled, intoxicated by the music.” Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts. 

Much of the series' action takes place in the Cafe Tropical, which is very much like the restaurants I know in my rural area. In fact, although the setting is deliberately vague, I was sure it was set in rural Ohio, evidence of how well the show nails small town life today.

I wrote earlier about the series Schittt's Creek as pastoral: ( Now that I have finished all six seasons, I would like to laud the show in more general terms: I simply can't recommend it too highly. Lara Zarum, writing for The New York Times, sums it up as:

Sweet but never saccharine, the show has tracked the evolution of the Roses — who arrived in Schitt’s Creek full of disdain, with nothing but the couture on their backs — as they’ve been absorbed into the tiny town in the boonies
The formerly wealthy Roses, Johnny, Moira, and their adult children David and Alexis, come to love their adopted home, a sharp contrast to some of their snobbish friends back east. The Roses mature (or renew in the case of the older generation).  They thrive as the family grows closer. They also grow as individuals in their new and humbler home. The series has a special resonance for me as I made a similar move with my family to small town America 12 years ago. I also have been changed by the experience in profound and positive ways. I can connect with Catherine O'Hara, who plays family matriarch Moira, when she says of the series' characters, "it's like we're aliens learning to be humans." I too learned to become more human--and humane--living in a new and quieter place.

 I am delighted this show got off the ground and has become a slo-mo hit. A documentary at the end of season six highlights, too, what I hadn't fully noticed: that the series has become a beacon to the LGBTQ community because of its matter-of-fact depiction of a loving relationship between two men as something natural, not angst-ridden. I found it heart-warming on the documentary to see the show's embrace by the LGBTQ community.

Patrick (Noah Reid) and David (Daniel Levy) have a loving relationship.  

The community and family support David and Patrick in a very natural way. 

I also registered the degree to which the fan devotion depicted in the documentary shows a hunger for kindness. And this gets to the heart of the show. It has been nominated for four Emmys, is beautifully acted and scripted, and thoughtful in developing characters, but the main point is its modeling of  kindness and compassion--and a profound equalitarianism--in human relations. It is an exemplar of l'ecriture humaine. And all of this is managed in a non-syrupy way that nonetheless can bring a tear to the eye.

Notably, according to Zarum, the series was turned down by all the U.S. broadcast and cable networks before the producers were able to "cobble together" funding from CBC (Canadian Broadcasting) with a distribution agreement from Europe's ITV Studios. "Finally," as Zarum says, a word that can be read as a sigh, Pop, a U.S. for-pay television channel signed on.

Moira (Catherine O'Hara) in town hall. One of my surprises was finding out that the clothing, which I had thought was an overtop parody of designer clothing, was actual designer clothing, another evidence that the rich are not like you and me. The program budgeted for couture fashion to avoid having to tell people in every episode that the Roses had fallen from wealth.

I am not surprised that all the major US outlets refused the series: in fact, I would have been surprised if it were otherwise. The innate, gentle humanity of the show would be anathema to the backers of such psychopathically hard-hearted mini-series as "Game of Thrones" and "West World" or some of the cruel sitcoms out there. Yet, as is so often the case, marginalization was a boon for the show. The series developed under the radar, largely unnoticed--as if, in fact, the Levys were in Schitt's Creek. As Zarum notes:

Levy says the show’s distance from the Hollywood hoopla gives him a certain level of freedom as a storyteller. “We operate very much in an isolated bubble up in Canada,” he said. 

I copy below four New York Times' commenters' comments, all surprisingly non-acerbic for the Times:

"I'm so obsessed with the show that I had a "Fold in the Cheese!" apron made up for holiday cooking. I found it marvelously funny from the first episode, but what caught me off guard is how I first cried at the end of Season 2, which turned to occasional blubbering in Season 3, and now I'm often a mess watching the stories unfold.
The very rare program that lets the characters grow in a natural and organic way, but retains each of their very distinct personalities and quirks as they expand to become more fully realized people.
It's also extremely significant because it's the first example I can remember in any television or film program that accurately depicts an LGBT romance/relationship as they so often are in real big deal. There is no exaggeration, no heightened parody, no big statements. Just people being people and those around them embracing them for it. The portrayal is long overdue and means the world to so many of us." John 

 Honestly, this show has saved our sanity as we turn from the insanity of our politics and fear and tune in to this wonderful series.  This past season was poignant, heartfelt and just magical...I talk this show up to everyone who will listen to me.  We will miss them. Darby Stevens 

 “The show really has gotten us through the darkest time I can remember in our politics, and I'm Catherine O'Hara's age [60s].  Maybe we'll survive after all." Neenee

“The show is superbly written, no wasted dialog, respectful of each character, exquisitely funny and no inane laugh track to tell is what to think." Mike
The Roses live in a motel. One of my students, also down on her luck though she had not ever fallen from wealth, lived in a very similar hotel. I would drive her home after class because although she had recently had brain surgery (fortunately she had Medicaid) and could easily get dizzy and fall down, she could not afford a car. In other words, how the Roses end up living, though it can seem fantastic, is reality for many Americans--though most don't have the Roses' background. 

The series is an example of how l'ecriture humaine transcends the snobbish. Using Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, and EM Forster as exemplars of l'ecriture humaine can leave the false impression that this kind of writing is only the province of a certain type of literature and only for a certain kind of person, when nothing could be further from the truth. Part of this project is to go past pretty wrappings to the core of what a humane literature and media is.

Twyla (Sarah Levy) and Moira in the Tropical Cafe. The Levy family is responsible for the series and three of them, including Sarah, star in it.

Past blogs have shown that a l'ecriture humaine highlights the domestic, the circular, the point-of-view of the underdog, the empathetic, the rejection of ritual humiliation, and the equalitarian. Schitt's Creek has all of these attributes. What especially moves me is its radical equalitarianism--unlike a show such as Downtown Abbey, which celebrates a hierarchical society, there is no hierarchical pecking order in Schitt's Creek. We even learn something at the end about Twyla, the waitress, that makes it impossible to slot her into a 'lesser' category. When this ending first emerged, I thought it ludicrous, then realized it is a part of the radical vision of the show, which consciously or not,  creates a world where all people are equal. Pastoral and visionary literature thus merge.

Some will possibly reject the series for a few disgusting or raunchy gags, especially at the beginning. That would be a mistake in my opinion, but to each their own.

Monday, May 18, 2020

L'Ecriture Humaine: Hamlet's pacifist subtext

For a society in desperate need of rediscovering its moral center, Shakespeare stands out as a key articulator of human decency.  Yet though Shakespeare's humanity sometimes leaps from his work,  sometimes it is obscured. Hamlet, for example, a highly jagged, problematic play, veils its critique of revenge and war. The long version we have--four and half hours performed in its entirety--reflects Shakespeare's struggles, never-resolved, with this play's contradictions.

Hamlet is ripped apart as the play opens with grief over his father's death, angered and stunned at his mother's quick remarriage, and thrown into horror by his father's ghost's revelations.  In an overt reading, Hamlet enacts justice when he finally kills his father's --and mother's--cold-blooded murderer. Yet alternative ideas about revenge can be found  through the stories embedded within Hamlet that take us winding into the classical world in a way that undermines an overt reading. 

Two stories alluded to in the play highlight two possible responses to vengeance. In the first, in Act II, scene ii, Hamlet chats with the players who arrive at the castle. He starts a speech given about Pyrrhus, Achilles' son. Pyrrhus, entering the Trojan horse as part of the ploy to defeat Troy, is out for vengeance anyway he can get it, and his description in Hamlet lives up to his bloodthirsty reputation. 

European paintings heroize Pyrrhus, though modern readers often speculate that he was literature's first psychopath. Here, in a detail from an urn that is called "Pyrrhus kills Priam" we see the slaughter of Trojan women and children that was part of Pyrrhus' murderous rampage. I have not found, however, an image of him coated in bloody  gore baked onto his body or with blazing red eyes.  
Pyrrhus has coated himself in the thick, congealed blood of the dead: fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons. Further, he has lit fires in the streets to bake and paste the thick layer of blood to his flesh. He is "roasted in wrath and fire." He has been made larger with the bloody gore he has pasted to himself, and his eyes burn like red stones. This is a terrifying and dehumanized picture of rage and bloodlust:

Now is he total gules, horridly tricked/With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons/Baked and impasted with the parching streets, /That lend a tyrannous and damnèd light, /And thus o'ersizèd with coagulate gore, /With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus /Old grandsire Priam seeks.

The First Player then picks up the story and describes  how the merciless "tyrant" Pyrrhus, driven by fury, hacks the hapless Priam to death, dishonoring his body:

Pyrrhus at Priam drives, in rage strikes wide, /But with the whiff and wind of his fell swordThe unnerved father falls. Then senseless Ilium, /Seeming to feel this blow, with flaming top /Stoops to his base, and with a hideous crash

 /Takes prisoner Pyrrhus' ear. For, lo, his sword, /Which was declining on the milky head /Of reverend Priam, seemed i' th' air to stick. /So as a painted tyrant Pyrrhus stood ...

This is a picture of mad revenge. 

The second allusion to revenge comes when Hamlet asks Polonius in Act III scene 2, as they are getting ready to watch the Mousetrap play, if he has ever acted. Polonius says that as a university student:  “I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i’the capitol/Brutus killed me.” This foreshadows Polonius' death at the hands of Hamlet. But it also brings to mind Brutus’s father. This elder Brutus was murdered despite having been promised safe passage after surrendering to Pompey. The younger Brutus, the friend of Caesar,  never avenges his father’s death. He believes it would be better for Rome to let revenge go and put the needs of his country ahead of of the "dishonor" of his private domestic situation. 

Since Hamlet will later enact the role of Brutus in killing Polonius, he is explicitly identified with Brutus--a figure who does not enact revenge. 

Hamlet looks beyond the arras to see the body of Polonius, who he has just accidentally killed. 

Hamlet himself is a problematic character. Critics have often depicted him as the figure of indecision, while others, such as Rene Girard in The Theater of Envy, defend Hamlet for his humanity in thinking carefully and seeking confirmation before killing a man on the basis of the words of a ghost. As Girard notes in "Hamlet's Dull Revenge:"
Should our enormous critical literature on Hamlet someday fall into the hands of people otherwise ignorant of our mores, they could not fail to conclude that our academic tribe must have been a savage breed, indeed. After four centuries of controversies, Hamlet’s temporary reluctance to commit murder still looks so outlandish to us that more and more books are being written in an unsuccessful effort to solve the mystery. The only  way to account for this curious body of literature is to suppose that back in the 20th century no more was needed than the request of some ghost, and the average professor of literature would massacre his entire household without batting an eyelash.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare has Hamlet raise profound and important questions about a revenge and violence ethic.

Painters gravitate to the same scenes from Hamlet, such as this one in which Hamlet, in the graveyard, looks at Yorick's skull. At this point, Hamlet has begun to feel at peace about his destiny. 

Hamlet, from the start, in his heart of hearts doesn't want to to kill Claudius. He doesn't like Claudius, but that doesn't equate to a desire to murder him. In fact, the ghost's revelations only intensify Hamlet's suicidal ideation, turning his aggressions inward. His reluctance to mirror the bloodthirsty killing behavior of his uncle continues even into Act IV.

In Act IV, scene 4, while he is waiting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to board a ship to England, Hamlet meets one of Fortinbras' captains and asks him what is going on. Fortinbras has been threatening since the play began to march on Denmark in revenge for perceived wrongs done against his own father. The captain tells Hamlet bluntly that Fortinbras is asking for safe passage so he can march an army across to Denmark to reclaim a worthless strip of land:
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it.

Hamlet wonders about this, and yet attempts to use Fortinbras as a role model to motivate himself to avenge his father's death. He castigates himself for his indecision, calling himself a coward for overthinking the act of revenge. But the more he tries to hold up Fortinbras as a model, the more his words show that he, at least subconsciously, thinks his counterpart is a monster. Hamlet says that Fortinbras is risking many lives for what is no more substantial than an "eggshell:" 

 Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare/Even for an eggshell. 
Hamlet then defines being "great"  in the conventional terms of his society, but as he does so, he inadvertently speaks a double language. Hamlet defines greatness as  to quarrel over nothing --"a straw"-- for the sake of "honor." This idea of greatness is palpably absurd: 

... greatly to find quarrel in a straw/When honor’s at the stake.

Hamlet nevertheless continues to try to bury his doubts about violence by comparing himself to Fortinbras and wondering how he, Hamlet, can continue to "sleep:" 

How stand I then, /That have a father killed, a mother stained, /Excitements of my reason and my blood, /And let all sleep ...

Hamlet once again uses language that reveals that he thinks it is ridiculous to gamble with the deaths of 20,000 men for a "fantasy." He states that the number of lives Fortinbras is risking are more than could be buried on the land they are being asked to take, underscoring the absurdity of his rival's  quest:
 The imminent death of twenty thousand men, /That for a fantasy and trick of fame /Go to their graves like beds, /fight for a plot /Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, /Which is not tomb enough and continent/To hide the slain?

Using Fortinbras as a template, Hamlet decides he will stick to "bloody" thoughts. Tellingly, however, he does not break from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his powerless courtier companions, to return to the castle and immediately kill Claudius. Instead, he boards a ship to England, putting a sea between himself and Claudius--an astonishing negation of all he has  just declared in his soliloquy.

Hamlet doesn't come to "peace" with himself until he arrives in England. As Girard notes, he caught between a Christian and a pagan ethic in a culture where the two rest uneasily side by side. Girard is wrong, however, in seeing Hamlet as simply an imitator of other vengeful sons around him: Hamlet is not slavishly following the model of Laertes--or Fortinbras--in seeking revenge. Hamlet is his own person.

As he so often does (see, eg, Henry V, act four, scene 1) Shakespeare uses the bloodthirsty imagery of heroic language to undercut and point out the barbarism of his culture's notions of heroism. In weaving into Hamlet the story of monstrous Pyrrhus--and waving red flags at this story with a long quote from it--and by including a long soliloquy in which Hamlet cluelessly lays bare the barbarism of the very honor code he vows (but fails) to uphold--Shakespeare critiques the conventional ethics of the "great." He even goes so far as to gesture toward a figure in the pagan world--Brutus--who defines honor in a way that defies the revenge and violence ethic.

This will bring us to the next blog. For all his anguish over revenge, is distaste for violence, and a thoughtful, sensitive nature, Hamlet is also a prince--and this leads him to kill.  High rank mars this most introspective of characters. 

Monday, May 11, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Life from the Center

Life from the Center is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene.... It is radiant. It takes no time, but it occupies all our time. Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

This time last year, I attended yoga class four to six times a week, as well as Quaker groups and meetings, and, as an experiment, immersed myself in the process of self-publishing a book. I had the same almost full-time work-at-home schedule I have now. My daughter was getting married, I was researching a scholarly paper on Virginia Woolf, and Roger and I were making frequent weekend trips, including one to New York City to look at wedding gowns with Sophie and Ben (and have dinner with relatives and see museums).

While in New York, we took advantage of the time to see a show at the Guggenheim given over to Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), whose abstract works predate Kandinsky and certainly the 1960s pop-art they anticipate. Above is one her traditional painting, done early in her career. Below is a later painting, done after she started believing she was being given visions. Now, unable to museum tour, we watched a wonderful 2019 documentary on Klimt: Beyond the Visible. 

The Klimt film Beyond the Visible argues that art history needs to be rewritten to give credit to this reclusive figure. She did, however, give a show in London at the Friends Meeting House, which Roger Fry and the Bloomsbury artists must have been aware of (Fry was raised a Quaker and, and as we all know, brought modern art to England.) Klimt had wanted her works displayed in a spiral building like the Guggenheim--and she, Kandinsky, and Wright were all disciples of theosophy. 

There was a measles outbreak near the airbnb where we were staying in Brooklyn, and I remember wondering how this crowded area would fare in an epidemic. Thinking about the measles had led me to start rereading Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year, a project that I now look back on as naive.  I had no expectation at all that a year later I would be in the midst of a worldwide pandemic--this despite many warnings that such a thing could happen.

In retrospect, it seems ironic I was rereading Defoe's fictionalized account of the London plague of 1666, A Journal of the Plague Year,  a year before our own pandemic.  Now I am glad I did. 

This time last year we attended Nick's graduation from Allegheny College, where he won the "spirit of philosophy" award. We had a celebratory dinner in Pittsburgh. Will joined us for the weekend. We ate out at least once weekly, made visits to Roger's mother in a nursing home, and visited Will in Richmond, Indiana as I researched Virginia Woolf's Quaker aunt, Caroline Stephen, another Woolfian project. It was a period, because of a crowd of events, in which I was spending every other weekend out of town.  At home,  I seemed to have constant errands, plus hair appointments and the occasional lunch with a friend.  And yet, I would have protested I led a quiet life. Now that life looks enormously packed.

It is a year later. I look out my window. The long grass tips in the meadow quiver in the breeze. We have had so much rain that everything is brilliantly green, as if this is Ireland. Small leaves appear on the oak tree. The water on the lake ripples and sparkles. The barn, repainted red twelve years ago, is beginning to peel: I do lead a quiet life in the country. 

I have lost track of what week it is of our extended "shelter in place."  Roger now works from home. Nick is an essential worker as he stocks shelves at night in Kroger, an interim job to land him on his feet after college. He gets a "hero's bonus" of an extra $2 an hour for one more week. We go for groceries every other week. Sometimes, I have run other errands. We adjust to wearing masks in public.

The world has slowed. My lungs seem to expand and take in air as I think of the earth getting a breath, a chance to heal. This is a time when blue skies dawn over quiet cities. That seems a huge gift. We are not now ceaselessly overworking the planet which gives us the possibility of life.

Our lake, May of last year. Whatever I write, always a part of the story is left out. I am appreciating this extraordinary gift of retreat and quietude but there are times I long to see people. 

When the weather permits Roger and I take walks. Sometimes I walk alone around our acre of yard.  However, not having been brought up in the way of the British to slog through bouts of seemingly incessant rain, I stay indoors when the weather is bad. As I do, I think of Virginia's Woolf's habit, formed early, of daily walking, rain or shine. Yesterday, mid-May, we woke to frost and snow on our cars. It was warmer in Chawton, England, Jane Austen's home, than Ohio.

Today, weather permitted, so Roger and I took a walk. He knew where the gate was to get us into the pasture nearby. We walked there, seeing an idyllic brook with two small waterfalls.  I am appreciating the slower, healing rhythms of this simpler life.

Sometimes in years past, when I was trying to calm my racing brain, I would look at old photos on the internet from the 1940s of women washing the marble steps of row houses in my birth town of Baltimore.  Who would have time for that anymore, I would wonder. But now we have that time back. Activities a year ago squeezed to flatness and crowded out by business now expand and take up space.

Our basement is cleaner. We sorted out Roger's closet. We cook frequently: I have tried new recipes, made Indian red beans, homemade salad dressing, waffle batter. Roger cooks and makes frozen margaritas and lemon drop martinis at home. Not eating out has not been the hardship I imagined, though I do miss it as a seemingly lost way of life. My reading continues at a steady pace but feels far less harried.

It seems ironic, too, to be reading this year about travel and movement when we are "sheltering in place."

During this pandemic, I feel for lost lives and lost jobs. It can seem frivolous to write about a life that has so far existed in a bubble untouched in many ways by what is going on.

Life now has some of the feeling of Groundhog Day, a repetition of the same day rather than endless variety or the illusion thereof.  Life therefore develops a new rhythm. There is time. The world is no longer too much with us. I hadn't realized before how much pressure I was putting on myself to keep my time "filled." Why does time have to be "filled" in a rush of activity? Why not allow white space? Why not let what is there already in time and place expand?

Something in our hearts-- my heart--has longed for this quiet life of contemplation. And now, miraculously, we live Yeats' dreamscape of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree:"

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

In our bubble, our waiting stasis, there is a sense of uncertainty. What will happen next? What will the future hold?  I remind myself that there's always been this uncertainty, usually, of course, hidden under the illusion of "normalcy," the illusion people so often hold that what is now will always be, immutably. If we don't know what the future holds, we didn't six months ago either. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Good leaders and sociopaths in literature and history: Oedipus, Templeton the rat, and H.H. Holmes

Thousands of years ago, Oedipus, King of Thebes, faces a city-state devastated by a plague in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.  The people of the city arrive in front of his palace, asking him for help. Oedipus addresses them as follows:
But the soul inside me sorrows ... for the city, and for you—all together. You are not rousing me from a deep sleep.You must know I’ve been shedding many tears and, in my wandering thoughts, exploring many pathways.
Oedipus expresses his compassion for the suffering of his people, something our great leader has yet to do. Oedipus also reveals his awareness of the plague and says he is already working on trying to solve the problem. He has sent Creon to the oracle at Delphi to find answers and expects him back at any time.

Oedipus has compassion on the suffering of his people during a plague. His worst traits--pride, arrogance, violence--would most likely be valorized as the keys to his greatness in our society but are seen as his flaws in this drama.
Oedipus' tangled past of troubles includes killing his father and marrying his mother. He did not know the man he killed was his father, but murder is nevertheless a grave problem, as the text illustrates. His moment of ruthless pride is condemned as a flaw that diseases his city, not valorized as what made him great. He also married an older woman opportunistically to help legitimize his claim to the throne, another questionable act. However, he clearly grew to love Jocasta dearly because when he finds her body hanging from committing suicide, he is grief--as well as guilt--stricken.

Despite his problems, Oedipus' handling of the plague with compassion and competent action is a model of good leadership. Further, when Oedipus realizes he is the problem and needs to go into exile for the plague to be ended, he behaves responsibly and gives up his throne. One could weep for such  leadership that puts the good of the people ahead of its own desires. Oedipus' domestic problem begin to pale in light of what a competent king he demonstrates himself to be. Further, his negative traits of pride, paranoia, and violence are not put at the center of what makes him a good leader: his compassion, competency, courage,  and responsibility are.

Templeton the rat in Charlotte's Web shows the opposite attributes because he is a sociopath. When Charlotte suggests that he be recruited to bring scraps of magazines from the dump, where he frequently forages, so that Charlotte can weave more words into her web to save Wilbur, she is warned that Templeton will not comply:
The rat had no morals, no conscience, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything.

Today we would applaud and vote into office a being without morals, conscience, scruples, or kindness and see that as "strength," but in the world of Charlotte's Web the animals know a rat when they see one. 

True to form, when approached, Templeton says of Wilbur "let him die." It is only when the old sheep appeals to his self interest that Templeton agrees to help: The sheep reminds him that if Wilbur dies, Templeton will not be able to eat the remains of the pig's warm slops. Fortunately for Wilbur, the animals live in a society that does not look with gusto on callous indecency and does not want to put  Templeton in charge for being "strong." The moral compass in this society has not gotten confused.

 Eric Larson's The Devil in the White City tells the story of the 1893 Chicago's World Fair, but also the story of con artist and serial killer HH Holmes. A notable trait of this man was not paying his bills. We are told:

 As workers came to him for their wages, he berated them for doing shoddy work and refused to pay them, even if the work was perfect. They quit, or he fired them. He recruited others to replace them and treated these workers the same way. Construction proceeded slowly, but at a fraction of the proper cost.
He had no intention of paying his debts and was confident he could evade prosecution through guile and charm.
H.H. Holmes: His eyes supposedly mesmerized people

One can be a sociopathic con artist without being a serial killer--and most con artists are not serial killers.  But the traits of a sociopath are consistently the same, and the briefest foray into the books on one's shelf bring them out. I happened across these references by accident: I did not seek them out. Instead, the juxtapositions jumped out at me.

We have a leader whose qualities align far more closely with Templeton and Holmes than Oedipus. But we have to look to our larger society for answers. What we have in our leader is the rot rising to the surface of what Henry Girard calls a "culture of cruelty."

I don't have the reference and don't want to publicize this man, but I saw this in the past week on the Daily Kos: a  TV or radio shock jock  of some sort going on about how he was planning, should a food shortage and social chaos ensue from pandemic, to eat his neighbors. He went on about it at some length, with all the usual elements of a certain kind of twisted macho fantasy in place. Because he had planned his kill and had already chosen his victims, he would be able to strike first: kill rather than be killed. He had already figured out how he would handle the neighbors he planned to eat: he would hang them up, gut them, and skin them, then cook them. Key to this fantasy was protecting the vulnerable: he would do to this to save his daughters from starvation.

The man is obviously trying to keep his ratings up through shock, but he is another indication of the rot: this sociopathic derring-do no doubt garnered a great deal of approval and animated his followers by triggering their hormones, while valorizing and normalizing any barbarity as permissible for defending one's family.

I don't know who his audience voted for.

Hannah Arendt wrote of totalitarianism replacing politics with spectacle, and that is clearly a moment in which we live. Followers react to the spectacle of Trump, admiring the strong man, and feeling participatory in his so-called strength by chanting his  hypnotic three-syllable phrases: "Lock her up," "build the wall." Trump knows how to deliver the spectacle of power people crave instead of the mundane reality of politics--Noam Chomsky is right that he is a certain kind of political genius. If all politics is is never-ending spectacle, he is your man, and you can revel in the fantasy of power he projects.

The road to Trump was paved by an increasingly aggressive literature, most notably in the form of filmed media. Valorizing, as they do (the attempts to "discredit" these men within the narratives is vacuous), Tony Soprano and Walter White, along with the various murderous rampages perpetrated by sociopaths in Game of Thrones or West World, has led us to Trump. Admiring the Templetons of the world for their sociopathic traits has led to Trump.

The stories we tell are important. It is desperately important in these times to return to narratives in which the ruthless are treated not as admirable but repulsive. Sophocles and Shakespeare knew how to create spectacles, such as in Oedipus Rex and Hamlet, that maximize violence and shock, that raise emotions to a pitch and lead to vicarious emotional release, while at the stand time standing up for human decency. These two plays may not be dramas that will appeal to Trump supporters, but we can write such dramas for our times.