Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Literary Corner: Elegy For the War Dead

William Blake watercolor illustration for Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", 1777-78, via Wikipedia.

From an interview on ABC News with David Muir (in which the poet once again complained about the "broken tests" bequeathed him by the Obama administration, to no pushback from Muir; I'd say it's not surprising if they didn't work very well in diagnosing Covid-19, but very remarkable that they should have existed at all, since Obama left office more than three years before the virus was discovered, or is it possible that Trump is not telling the truth here? Just asking questions).

Muir observed that the pandemic has now taken upwards of 70,000 lives, more than the Vietnam War, and asked the president if he had a message for the bereaved families; rather than telling him that he was a bad reporter and calling the question "nasty", as he has done in the past, Trump offered an answer in the form of a lengthy elegy, in which his capacity for empathy was on unusually full display:

I wanna say I love you 
by Donald J. Trump
I wanna say that we're doing everything
we can I also wanna say that we're
trying to protect people over 60
years old we're trying so hard
I wanna just say to the people
that have lost family
and have lost loved ones
and the people that have just
suffered so badly and just
made it and just made it
that we love you we're with
you we're working with you
we're supplying vast amounts of
money like never before we want
that money to get to the people
and we want them to get better 
you can never really come close
to replacing when you've lost
someone no matter how well
we do next year I think 
our economy's going to be raging
it's going to be so good
no matter how well those
people can never ever replace 
somebody they love but we're
going to have something that
they're going to be very proud of
and to the people that have
lost someone there is nobody
I don't sleep at nights thinking
about it there is nobody
that's taking it harder than me
but at the same time I have to
get this enemy defeated
and that's what we're doing
David that's what we're doing 
(Text via Daniel Dale.)

That favorite antique uncle? You'll never be able to replace him, no matter how well the stock market is doing. They don't manufacture uncles like that any more. But be assured, Trump feels worse about it than you do.

The only other thing I have here is an observation that may have been made by Susan Sontag in her writing on cancer, on a particularly pernicious effect of the war metaphor for illness, which is in tacit operation throughout this poem, kicked off by Muir's Vietnam reference and carried through: Trump, now the sole general after having eliminated all the generals of his earlier rule, is charged with "getting this enemy (Covid-19) defeated", and he's speaking as the tender leader of troops, Henry V after Agincourt, of his love for the dead and their families. But in this way he's promoting all the victims of the sickness to soldiers, who have sacrificed themselves to the glory of our future raging economy. Their death is ennobled and justified by its part in Trump's struggle to make that economy rage.

In fact, when he ought to be blaming himself for the two-month delay in focusing on the pandemic, he is turning it around to congratulate them—they, or their spouses and siblings and children and grandchildren, will be proud of what they've accomplished.

The war metaphor isn't Trump's invention, obviously, but he's been an eager participant in using it for this disease, to often pernicious effect, as when people start attributing human motives, malice and strategy, to the virus itself. It's responsible for Trump's original focus on trying to wall it out instead of trying to protect people by teaching them appropriate responses, as the governors of so many states of managed to do: it goes where it goes through the operations of chance, because people innocently carry it where they're going.

The metaphor also plays a role in Trump's anti-China posturing, which seems really kind of dangerous to me, with the theory of their wicked biological weapons program in the Wuhan lab and the idea that the Chinese authorities lied about the virus's initial spread as if to lull us into inaction so they could catch us worse. As if, after their unquestionable suffering (currently tallied at 4,633 deaths, which seems pretty quaint compared to some of the European numbers, let alone ours), they'd formed a secret alliance with the disease to work together with it against their common enemy.

The thing is, you know, of course the Chinese authorities lied about the initial ravages of Covid-19, as they always will. Not because they hoped to deceive Donald Trump but because they're afraid, like all authoritarian regimes, of their own people. If Hillary Clinton were president, that would have been part of her own calculation, in concert with the intelligence agencies and health agencies, and she would have known. as the intelligence agencies did know, pretty exactly what was going on, and the country would have been in a much better position. Trump, in contrast, spent those two months telling us how his brilliant and strong friend Xi Jinping had everything under control, as if he were an agent for the Chinese Communist Party himself (I'm not saying he wasn't), and now his feelings are hurt, and we have to double down on our economic war with them, which will not help our economy at all. Because our emperor was betrayed by his fellow emperor.

But his elegizing is, morally, the worst of all, because he's using the metaphor as a vehicle for excusing himself for his catastrophic blunders, because à la guerre comme à la guerre and of course people are dying, that's how treacherous our enemies are, and he himself is of course its greatest victim—"there's nobody that's taking it harder than me."

(Linguistic note: I'm really struck just now by how often Trump uses "that" rather than "who" as a relative pronoun, four times in these 36 lines. and wondering if it's an unconscious indicator of his weak sense of the difference between humans and objects.)

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