The Will Not to Believe
It’s been a rough couple of months to be an English major.
Not only has the newly instated President of the United States proposed “targeting waste” like The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) (with combined budgets of just over .002 percent of federal discretionary spending); there was the flagrant disregard for plagiarism exhibited by his entire team after the First Lady obviously plagiarized her speech at the Republican National Convention.
On the other hand, sales of George Orwell’s “1984” have surged since Kellyanne Conway’s infamous “alternative facts” comment. Always look for the silver lining, people.
Perhaps we English majors are to blame. After all, there has been an undeniable postmodern bent of literature and philosophy on campuses since Allan Bloom’s first flare signal in “The Closing of the American Mind.” It’s possible that this carefully cultivated, academic inability to call a spade a spade has left us with a hand full of Jokers in our goddamned hour of need.
Then again, the most clear-eyed identification — and greatest refutation — of Trump’s moral relativism, his ethical slipperiness, and his red-blooded embrace of “truthiness” can only be found in some of the greatest, most popular American novels.
It’s almost as if our greatest empaths have been warning us of this very moment for generations: That our nation’s greatest strength, our incredible gift for hope, is also our greatest weakness.
“The will not to believe is simple human nature,” Herman Wouk tells us in his monumental war epic “War and Remembrance.” Wouk was often dismissed by literary critics, for reasons eloquently expressed by David Frum right before Wouk’s passing. But Wouk knew something that his cleverest critic didn’t — what it felt like to be Jewish during World War II. He would feel compelled to remind us of this simple fact — that Americans don’t want to believe the worst — again and again throughout his novels.
A massively influential American character predicted this upheaval as well: Rhett Butler. As his fellow genteel Southerners refused to believe that their life could ever be different, Butler tells Scarlett “In the end what will happen will be what has happened whenever a civilization breaks up. The people who have brains and courage come through and the ones who haven’t are winnowed out. At least, it has been interesting, if not comfortable, to witness a Gotterdammerung.”
“A what?” Scarlett asks.
“A dusk of the gods. Unfortunately, we Southerners did think we were gods.”
Of course, there is the most iconic dreamer: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. The narrator, Nick, tells us of Gatsby’s incredible gift for hope even as his bloodied body is carried away by strangers and his palatial house on West Egg is vandalized by neighboring boys. There is no question Gatsby would have lived if he could just have gotten it through his generous, resourceful, loving noodle that Daisy was more a phantom than a full-hearted human woman.
It’s too late for American voters who hoped Trump would be reasonable, measured, or even Presidential once in-office. The executive order spree has begun, and it is staggering in both its panoptic reach and its pettiness.
Our novels tell us these stories because we need to hear them again and again. For whatever reason, we Americans refuse to acknowledge those facts — those stubborn devils John Adams warned us about — that interfere with the Dream.
Of course, it helps to be an English major to know that. Hopefully we’ll still be around long enough to keep figuring out fresh ways to express that unpleasant but necessary truth.