DECEMBER 3, 2008
A few weeks ago, the prophet Elijah appeared to me. It was almost dusk, and he took the form of a comely woman on P Street. She wore a black dress that tightly clasped her waist and sky-high black shoes with formidable fastenings. Her dark hair was pulled back vehemently into a ponytail, and drops of sun-specked metal hung from her ears. Most remarkable of all, she was dancing. A man in a dinner jacket was her partner, but he acted mainly as a pivot for her ballroom brazenness on the sidewalk, which was executed with an admirable mixture of discipline and abandon. If there was music, I did not hear it: I was in my car, driving home from the grocery, and lost in lazy thought about the upcoming election, like everybody else. It was an hour of unalloyed banality. The common tyranny of public questions I justified as a vigorous experience of citizenship, but of course it was also a human constriction. And that is why I am certain that it was Elijah in those heels: in an instant, by means of no more than a passing image of her flagrant exhibition, the woman shattered the dailiness of the street and the city, and redeemed my mind from its confinement in the news cycle. When I spied her, I remembered what else there is. I was returned to an awareness of the other domains, the receded ones. It was an urban visitation, and it lasted as long as a red light. As I drove on I noticed that the woman's performance was a promotion for a new store, but I prefer to believe that it was the refreshment of sentience that she was promoting, and the multiplicity of the realms. I was not at all embittered by the sense of what can go missing: ecstasy is not a way of life, and there is dignity in groceries. Instead I was heartened by the distinction between what beauty is and what it is not. The only thing more foolish than not seeking beauty is seeking it in the wrong places.
It is emphatically not to be sought in politics. But again and again I observe an aesthetic reverence for a politician. The subject of the trance is, of course, Barack Obama, and it was plentifully on display in The New Yorker's election issue. It reached its ceiling, you might say, when the genius who some months ago drew the Obamas as terrorists in the White House now made amends by drawing Obama as Michelangelo's Adam--but tastefully cropped!--fist-bumping God, who was still a white man. But mainly the swoon was literary-critical, or more precisely, literary-uncritical. Thus we were taught that Dreams from My Father is "now assured of a place in the American literary canon." Why now--because its author won? That is not how the American literary canon is made. And we were told that Obama's "Democratic and Republican opponents were right: he ran largely on language," and that this is unobjectionable. And we were treated to a little professorial paean to Obama's victory speech. "Last Tuesday night was a very good night for the English language": given all that was at stake, this seems like rather a narrow focus, but still we were called to celebrate "echo, allusion, and counterpoint." The "ghost" of Lincoln was behind the speech, and Martin Luther King Jr. was its other "founder." These buttery hermeneutics strike me as mechanical and, worse, as gullible: Obama's speech was no more haunted by Lincoln's ghost than the announcement of his candidacy in Springfield was haunted by the Old State Capitol. Those associations were props; they were put there as part of the increasingly successful attempt by Obama to Lincolnize himself. It took longer for Lincoln to become Lincoln! But perhaps the adoring portrait of Obama as a savior of language is owed to a feeling of relief that in this election language narrowly escaped death: last month The New Yorker warned gravely of "the Republican war on words," ritually deploying Orwell against Sarah Palin's nasty (and rather obvious) incoherence. We are all Orwell now.
Truly I am not against art. But strong and lovely language is not always a vessel of strong and lovely thought. There is no simple correlation between verbal coherence and intellectual coherence. Bad writers may be good thinkers. And good writers may be liars and demagogues. We know this from philosophy--did Kant ever use the same term to mean the same thing in the same fifty pages?--and from history. Leon Trotsky was an extraordinary writer, and so was Whittaker Chambers. In his day President Eisenhower was renowned for the ugliness of his language--in 1957 this magazine published a parody by Oliver Jensen, whom we identified only as "someone in Washington," of the Gettysburg Address as Eisenhower would have delivered it: "I haven't checked these figures but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country ..."--but now we know that there was cunning in his inelegance. The demystification of political language that Orwell inaugurated in his magnificent essay was designed to tear down, not to build up, to challenge power, not to congratulate it; but there is something precious, and therefore apolitical, in the breathless parsing of the new president's sentences. A not unsmitten journal is chasing a not unwilling hero across a not unfawning field.
Nobody who has encountered the somber sensuousness of Lincoln's language, its primordial immersion in Scripture and Shakespeare, its gorgeous swings between candor and song, can regard Obama as more than artful and articulate. It would be a service to the new president to put Lincoln out of mind. America cannot be governed entirely by myth. Near the end of Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, Fred Kaplan's absorbing but somewhat overstated new book, I learn about Lincoln in 1861, on the eve of his presidency, that "for the time being, the only weapon he had at his command was language. ... having prepared himself over a lifetime to become a well-read master of the human narrative. If that narrative was to have its tragic dimension in Lincoln's failure, despite his talents, to prevent the South's secession, shorten the inevitable war, or alleviate Northern racism, it was to be an object lesson in the limitations of language. ..." Exactly so. Politics is not poetry. In the analysis of the Bush years and their disasters, the Bushisms are the least of it. I do not any more want to hear about the evil of Guantanamo. I want to see Guantanamo closed. Historically speaking, action is eloquence.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor at The New Republic.
This article originally ran in the December 3, 2008, issue of the magazine.