Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Camus, Melville, Beowulf and Vietnam?

It's kind of unsettling, actually, but every now and then Bush and his associates show signs of something resembling cultural literacy. Roughly a year ago, there were rumors that Bush was reading Camus' The Stranger and discussing it with Tony Snow. Then, last weekend on television, Karl Rove seemed to be groping for literary analogies to explain the Democrats' relentless pursuit of him. First he compared the Democrats and their subpoenas and hearings to crazed Ahabs pursuing Moby Dick. But then he felt the need to go back earlier in literary history: "I'm a myth...You know, I'm Beowulf, you know, I'm Grendel." But then (no doubt mentally straining to come up with the names of other characters from Medieval epics) he added, "I don't know who I am. But they're after me."

A friend of mine who used to teach literature at Western Reserve Academy was actually impressed that Rove could name both Beowulf and Grendel, even if he seemed kind of vague on other details. And I guess I should be impressed too: outing undercover intelligence agents and conducting Stalinesque purges of U.S. attorneys probably doesn't leave you a lot of time for catching up on the books you blew off in high school. On the other hand, now that Rove doesn't have a job anymore, he's got a lot more time to read. Maybe his literary analogies will get more impressive: "I'm Orestes, and the Democrats, you know, are like the Eumenidies."

But let's go back to Bush and The Stranger. I have to confess to being a little skeptical that he has actually read any Camus. I think it's much more likely that the press have (as usual) gotten their French Existentialists mixed up and the POTUS was actually reading some Sartre. Seriously--take a look at the official Presidential Advance Manual, with its instructions on how to keep demonstrators away from the press and even out of sight of the President. Clearly, this is a man for whom Hell is other people--at least people with opinions.

And there are clues that the President is branching out a bit intellectually. He might actually be reading history as well as fiction. At least, that's my inference from a speech he gave today comparing the war in Iraq to the one in Vietnam. He warned of regional chaos if U.S. troops withdraw, such as engulfed Cambodia and Laos after Vietnam. Now I'm finding this historical comparison a little weak. If you're looking for the cause of the Cambodian bloodbath, you're more likely to find it in the country being bombed for 14 months by the U.S. Air Force and then its occupation by U.S. ground troops. As for Laos, we armed a proxy army to fight the North Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

So either the President's a little shaky at drawing historical analogies, or he's got plans for Syria and Iran we don't know about yet. But cheer up: this is progress. George W. Bush is, after all, the man who supposedly told Joe Biden, "Brief me on Europe." I wonder how he started? "Well, Mr. President, it's a continent..." And now he can name individual countries--ones that aren't even in Europe. He's still rusty on more advanced reasoning, but our President mastering basic facts and showing an awareness of historical events is something to cheer. Because rarely is the question asked, is our politicians learning?

1 comment:

Antique Sailor said...

I too am a writer although admittedly didn't get around to it until my 76th year. My life was so adventuresome that I was repeatedly urged to get it down on paper so I finally published it a few months ago. Would love to hear your comments about it.
Can be found at www.merrypublishing or come visit my blog and read some excerpts. Not moralizing but inspiring I'm told.

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