The Grit and Grime of History as Modern Metaphor
The beastliness of tarring and feathering has probably been the most deeply disturbing smack of history as I’ve worked my way through HBO’s John Adams presentation on DVD.
During a childhood vacation, I walked through a wax museum with my parents, and although much of the attraction is lost to my memory, I still remember the figure of a wax dummy hanging from a hook through his molded midriff in a dungeon setting. The associated placard informed visitors that the phrase “off the hook” derived from this particular practice, and I haven’t heard or uttered the cliché since without recalling the excruciating sideways arch of the body — as well as the fact that even those who were released before they’d bled to death typically died anyway. Herman Melville’s description of the “keel-haul” in White Jacket did me the same service, just barely rescuing the experience of reading the book from status as a lower-magnitude form of torture. Colloquial English — a linguiphile learns over time — is riddled with images that ought not be as lightly uttered as they frequently are.
A reaction to the tarring scene with broader and more subtle application is the constitution of the mob, which drew in even some among our national heroes. One hears of a “mob mentality,” but I suspect that it’s not quite so monolithic a phenomenon. Some among the group are doubtless bloodthirsty, perhaps relishing the opportunity to taste power as the peasants of Dickens’s Paris relished wine — the drip of conviviality — that a broken cask had poured across the filthy cobblestones. Others (the film’s Sam Adams) become entranced at the opportunity that the desperate flex of community muscle imports. Still others (John Adams) intuit the danger of testing their own powerlessness and attempt no more than to persuade somebody nearby that the act is barbaric.
It makes us no better, only more fortunate, that such scenes are reduced mainly to metaphors in the modern public square. There was more grit to life, in those days, and the harsher our quotidian experience, perhaps the fewer barriers simple aesthetics can supply against unspeakable displays. Inoculation to us is an inconvenient trip to the pediatrician and a chance of fever. Abigail Adams (in the movie, at least) sat her children down to be sliced across the arm and infected with smallpox puss taken from a dying boy in the doctor’s cart outside, with the grim risk for the patients being death. (I’d note, here, the genius of the film’s creators in interweaving the emotional threads of the Declaration of Independence with the question of whether all Adams children survive the procedure.) When that is the look of preventative medicine, death by the infection of tar burns mightn’t scorch the conscience as deeply.
Still, the grime of plain life through which our forefathers waded does bring into relief some realities of more lasting duration. Throughout most of the four parts that I’ve watched of the seven, Adams has been away from his family. Upon returning to America well into the late 1880s, he requires his children to introduce themselves from amidst the masses as he stands with an awkward smile on the dock. His history being as yet unwritten, he faced the frustrating drudgery of politics and the fear of failure no less than any who struggle toward some end in the twenty first century. Matters of aptitude and luck certainly contribute to the building up of Great Men and Women, but this portrayal of our nation’s founding reminds us that sacrifice and risk, and willingness to accept both, mustn’t be disregarded.
In our time of unprecedented leisure and safety from life’s fluctuations, the demands of public responsibility aren’t offset by the universal difficulty of just living. Mark Steyn sees this dynamic in Sarah Palin’s sudden resignation from office:
If you like Wasilla and hunting and snowmachining and moose stew and politics, is the last worth giving up everything else in the hopes that one day David Letterman and Maureen Dowd might decide Trig and Bristol and the rest are sufficiently non-risible to enable you to prosper in their world? And, putting aside the odds, would you really like to be the person you’d have to turn into under that scenario?
National office will dwindle down to the unhealthily singleminded (Clinton, Obama), the timeserving emirs of Incumbistan (Biden, McCain) and dynastic heirs (Bush). Our loss.
Whatever the accuracy of Steyn’s analysis of this specific story, his theme is worth considering. Public figures who are self-standing in a financial sense and ensconced in a social sphere in the sense of status have a disproportionate advantage when it comes to the personal hazards of office. A rarified clique may liken the snickers of their peers to flogging, but there remains a difference between emotional and physical scars. We can take it as true that the only guillotine public figures need fear is the sharp bite of comedians’ monologues, and the modern pillory is a photograph in the ephemeral medium of the tabloids.
For those with the good (and great) fortune of summer manses to which to retreat in shame, the risk may be lightly taken, but to regular folk, the actual modern threats captured in historical metaphors of torture and pain are real enough — apt to be ruinous. For the former, being “off the hook” of public scrutiny means a return to life; for the latter, the wound may yet prove economically fatal.
To whatever extent the difference between the two perspectives is likely to prove unhealthy for our polity, it is exponentially more so for our culture. Though it is now the temper of the cynical to scoff at the notion, Americans once believed of their nation that grit and principle could carry one — rough edges and street creds intact — to the very top. As our civilization advances its technological ability to file down the barbs of life — such that a latter-day John Adams could fly his dear Abigail to the Netherlands for a weekend and stay connected with his children via the Internet — an inequity in the sacrifice that service and striving require may well establish an aristocracy in which the term “representative” joins the list of mere metaphors that once denoted something tangible.