Politics and the English Language

Politics and the English Language

Or, history and soliloquy.

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm, William Dyce (1806-1864)

Even to an inveterate book hound like me, the phone casts a powerful spell. The enervating election drama has only exacerbated its hold. Over the past few weeks, particularly the two running up to November 3rd, I found myself, in the middle of each night, standing in my dark bedroom, feeling for the phone on the top of my dresser, drawn to the promise of its screen by insomniac anxiety. Shielding the phone’s glow from the other side of the room, where Margot slept, I’d open the latest installment of Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American

Richardson is an historian whose most recent book is How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. Her nightly email newsletters have, since some time in 2019, digested political events and connected them to the past with insight and probity. After a friend recommended her writing to me a couple of months back, I became reliant upon her perspective on the day’s news for its calm exposition of the unfolding electoral process and its knowledgeable contextualizing of the often outrageous incidents that process has engendered. 

In the small hours of November 6 (her email was time-stamped 4:04 AM), Richardson described the events of the previous evening, including the incumbent president’s unsettled and unsettling press conference, in which he’d made his first public statements since election night. Richardson’s chronicle began like this:

And still, we wait.

Ballot counting in the 2020 presidential election continues, although it sure looks like Democratic candidate Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris are going to win. 

What has stood out today is the degree to which Trump and his team have governed by creating their own reality. Now that that image is being challenged, they are flailing.

Like most of Richardson’s missives, this one was quite long, and I was nearly 1,200 words into this particular installment, standing in our pitch-dark bedroom, when I came upon a statement that I fully understood but with which, on reflection, I took issue. Considering the president’s performance before the press, she described the scene in a manner that was, by all accounts, quite accurate: “In front of a wall of flags, speaking a low voice and tripping over his words at times, he rambled through a wild attack on the election, claiming it was being stolen from him.”

Then she commented: “It felt Shakespearean, like the desperate attempt of a man who has lost control of the narrative to try to claw it back. . . .” I knew what she meant, but I didn’t quite agree with her, for reasons that struck me as increasingly worth pondering, even after I finally got some sleep later in the week. What was missing from Trump’s appearance was exactly the dimension in which Shakespearean-ness abides: quickened language, aware of its potential power and in pursuit of the expressiveness that might unlock it, capable of parsing the most complex experience as it unfolds but leaving its meaning unfixed and emergent (and maybe even an enigma) to the speaker, but demanding of the audience an engagement, an alertness, that expands its sensibilities even in confusion. 

The soliloquies spoken by the dramatist’s heroes and villains, whether trying to claw back narratives that have overtaken them or assuming or avoiding the roles they’re ordained to play, invoke eloquence as a kind of antidote to existential fear; they create a space in which a search for meaning can operate, whether that search is wallowing (Richard II), murderous (Macbeth), scheming (Richard III), enraged (Lear), or ennobling (Henry V). Their pentameters are proving grounds of human nature; the truths unearthed are in some ways independent of the speaker, spelling out revelations intended or inadvertent, their import incorrigibly plural: they add new meanings every time we encounter them.

Left to its own devices, history is never Shakespearean; Shakespeare made it so by forging a new language equal to bearing the weight of the world and turning it round and round for us to assess. Through that language, he invested the chronicles of Holinshed and Saxo Grammaticus, even Plutarch, with an energy his sources lacked, animating them with dignity or shame, honor or disgrace, nobility or meanness—with mere humanity. In so doing, he gave generations a frame in which to judge the conduct and the consciences of historical actors (to say nothing of their contemporaneous selves), a frame by now so ingrained in our apprehension of public life that we can’t help but hold it up at moments of crisis—if only to our television screen—to measure the mettle of those who would lead us. We want momentous events to feel Shakespearean, but the trappings of events don’t make them so; words do.

Writing in a different context, about how the loss of rich local vocabularies for natural phenomena diminishes our experience of the world outside, Robert Macfarlane has said, “language does not just register experience, it produces it. The contours and colours of words are inseparable from the feelings we create in relation to situations, to others and to places. Language carries a formative as well as an informative impulse.” The experience produced by the language we can read in the White House transcript of the president’s November 5 remarks—blunt, disjunctive, baldly false in its assertion of irregularities—is calculated to be calculating, and too calculating by more than half. It allows no room, at a moment of present urgency and certain future scrutiny, for the incalculable forces of comity or convention or history to share the stage. It’s a whirlpool of will, one intended to pull into it—as it has so powerfully since 2016—the assembled attentions of press and public. What should have felt Shakespearean, then, was something less than that, and the gap itself, given the anxieties of the historical circumstance, was disconcerting.

It would be absurd, of course, to expect any of our public figures to speak with the grace and gravity of Shakespeare; or even, for that matter and alas, to have read Shakespeare with any degree of diligence. But it’s not absurd to expect them to acknowledge, if not command, the sensorium of values Richardson’s “Shakespearean” evokes. If words enact the drama of the body politic, our national stage is now a Twitter feed. The poverty of the language that commands attention on that stage—most effective, because most amplified, when nasty, brutish, and short—is an impoverishment of our experience more broadly, a cul-de-sac of exhortations and unattached superlatives in which we are condemned to fret in anticipation of the next incendiary falsification or pronouncement. Such deficiency of language, in the end, produces the same result, on a national scale, that Dr. Johnson ascribed to a remissness of education in an individual: it leaves us with no rule of action but our present humor.

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