The midterms are over and the word is in: American democracy has been temporarily preserved, even as its primary public-square-cum-public-enemy was bought out by our reigning asshole billionaire. The specter of boredom threatens to settle over the discourse until we are called to the polls again two Novembers from now—or at least until Georgia’s run-off election on Dec 6th.
Midterm politics in polarized America is nail-biting national entertainment. It is our bloodsport, a mandate taken ever more literally with the recent spate of violent attacks on political figures: Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Jan 6th, the scheme to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) (2020), the mailing of homemade explosives to Democratic representatives (2018), the shooting of Republican majority whip Steve Scalise (2017). Like Romans living through the last days of the empire, we love to be violently entertained. That we just rejected, however, the handpicked election-deniers poised to reinstate Trump’s monarchist mob suggests that we’d prefer to keep playing a pre-2016 edition. Not because the rules were fair. But because games aren’t fun anymore when the terms of play become too whimsical. This was Trump’s true if predictable misstep: Nobody likes to play cards (or gladiator) with children who change the rules as soon as they begin to lose. As the illustrious and actually politically gifted heroine of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, the Duchess, explains to a fellow courtier:
A court is ridiculous…a game. Who has ever taken it into their heads to complain that the rules of whist are ridiculous? Yet once you’re accustomed to the rules, it’s nice to make a slam against your opponents.
The Red and the Blue: Between Insurrections
What really concerns me here isn’t so much politics or games but, like Stendhal, their preconditions: passion and boredom. Stendhal (1783-1842) lived and wrote during a period of extreme political instability in his native France. The revolution was over (for now), but the sense that the government and its attendant social structures could fall at any moment remained; it was the uneasy calm between the first two Republics. His novels revolve around the political caprice of characters struggling to find footing amid the fragile peace. In both The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma, the plot hinges on the protagonists’ quixotic political allegiances, a whimsy mirrored in their romantic passions. Our heroes conjure all-consuming love solely to have something to live for. (It’s what the plot requires—both theirs and Stendhal’s.) When a post-revolutionary era promises nothing beyond an idle decadence, the Juliens and Fabrizios of the world settle for tilting at self-aggrandizing windmills. (Don Quixote was one of Stendhal’s favorite books.)
What do revolutionaries of great ambition do in historical moments dead to revolution’s spark? No wonder we’re so upset at the billionaire asshole’s takeover of our public square. It was Stendhal’s use of the novel to respond with irony to a “fragmentary” and “unstable” world that led the likes of Italo Calvino, André Gide, and Barthes to recognize him as a modern novelist before his time. The author himself declared (self-aggrandizingly) that he would not be properly understood until 1900, 1935, or even 2000. Here in the “polycrisis” moment of 2022, Stendhal remains prescient for these and other reasons, but above all his allegiance to the idea that the modes for expressing passion are determined by the historical moment in which we live. As his novels show, when an impotent era proves inimical to every dignified outlet, when conditions conspire to humiliate, irrevocably, every expression of sincerity, our misdirected vanity appears increasingly like madness. We act in a manner deserving of the ironic judgment of a Stendhalian narrator.
What are the available outlets for passion today? Look around. (And again at Twitter’s death throes.) For Stendhal’s heroes, who inherit a world after Rousseau, Voltaire, the Revolution, and Napoleon, politics is more or less dead. The moment of insurrection, along with the glory it promised, has passed, though this doesn’t stop Julian from dabbling in Republicanism, nor Fabrizio from running off to Waterloo for kicks. Religion is also a risky bet: After Voltaire, who can believe in the Holy Trinity with the full passion of her soul? (Is there any difference between politics and religion?) The characters who populate The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma face futures of wan dilettantism, but their souls crave greatness, and greatness needs a cause. They take up in turn politics, then God, then love as modes of gaining existential traction. At the end, they revel in the ecstasy of avoidable self-sacrifice; everyone dies too young. To paraphrase Irving Howe, who wrote on Stendhal in Politics and the Novel, Fabrizio and Julien’s problem is nothing less than how to exist with dignity in a moment where stupidity trumps all.
This seems to me a relevant struggle for anyone with an internet connection and a glancing knowledge of American politics. Everything is burning. Conventional politics is dead. Culture, ravenous for the retro, is “static.” The media paints us as a divided and bloodthirsty nation, but I think at heart we are also deeply tired – even bored – of the spectacle of ourselves. We are bored of the ridiculous power of being American. It’s a boredom laced with fear, and of a variety all too familiar to the monarchists facing the latent yet imminent wrath of revolution in Stendhal’s books. Twilight of an empire: Until the heads start rolling, the Prince of Parma’s greatest fear is boredom at court. That’s what he loves the Duchess for. What a dazzling entertainer she is! What a delightful drama she makes of playing by court rules! Chief among them, Don’t get caught. Frankly, Trump was doing fine for himself as national entertainer until he started taking insurrection too seriously. What we want is the world to return to autopilot. We want to be entertained, but with a little less nail-biting.
The pollsters say that sensible swing-voters nixed Trump’s stand-ins out of a desire to preserve the integrity of American elections already riddled with disenfranchisement, underrepresentation, gerrymandering, internet conspiracies, etc, etc. I think it’s equally likely we voted, as we always do, out of an exhaustion endemic across the political spectrum. I readily place my faith in those happy few still passionate and heroic enough to work within a broken system to keep the flames from leaping higher. The rest of us Fabrizios and Juliens should be honest with ourselves. Keep your godly fervor and homegrown terrorism out of politics. If you’re bored, try falling madly in love.
FOR YOUR FURTHER ENTERTAINMENT:
I wrote about the passions, energy, & other excesses in this short piece for the New York-based Nicholas Hall gallery, feat. The Fall of the Damned by Rubens (of course).
On Wednesday, November 23 @ 10:00 AM EST/4:00PM GMT I’ll be on Instagram Live with my publisher And Other Stories to talk about my latest novel (The Visitors), what I’ve been reading lately (Stendhal), and What I’m Working On (stories). I promise to be diverting. (It’s in the contract.)