It’s Saturday morning after the hurricane, and I’m nursing my third cup of coffee, trying to put off plunging into the steam bath on the other side of the condensation-dripping French doors, and go into the back yard to pick up limbs the storm left behind. I find myself driven to distraction by the idea that our nation, the richest and most powerful on earth, maybe the richest and most powerful nation that ever was, is mired in the fifth year of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and, with the rest of the planet, still teeters on the edge of the economic abyss. Each passing day brings us closer to the moment of reckoning in which we have to figure out how to pay for the social needs of our people without having the financial resources with which to do so. We remain stuck in a losing war in Central Asia, and though we are making haste, at last, to depart, we have not confronted the mistaken ideas that caused us to commit ourselves to the folly of “nation-building” in this hopeless region in the first place. We face a world of hurt and chaos — for example, did you see Jeremy Grantham’s discussion of the long-term, radically destabilizing food crisis the world seems to have entered, the dimensions of which he says are only truly appreciated by the US and UK militaries? — and appear determined to meet them via the power of positive thinking, and crackpot denunciations of our mediocre establishmentarian president as a Chicago version of Patrice Lumumba.
The cherry on top of the banana split: near the summit of the Republican convention, on the cusp of the coronation of the party’s standard bearer in the contest to lead the nation at this moment of its peril, the GOP trots out an elderly movie star, who, on live national television, conducts a rambling, barely coherent, off-color dialogue with an empty chair. An empty chair! And if that weren’t insane enough, we find ourselves, citizens of the New Rome, amid what looks like the senescence of Empire, discussing whether or not the elderly man’s gibbering oration was in fact a stroke of populist genius.
We have lost our damn minds.
It is a terrible time for politics. But it is a wonderful time for diagnosticians. In an interview collected in Signposts In A Strange Land, the late novelist Walker Percy said:
No one doubts the malevolence abroad in the world. But the world is also deranged. What interests me as a novelist is not the malevolence of man — so what else is new? — but his looniness. The looniness, that is to say, of the “normal” denizen of the Western world who, I think it fair to say, doesn’t know who he is, what he believes, or what he is doing. This unprecedented state of affairs is, I suggest, the domain of the “diagnostic” novelist.
Percy was onto something. He then told his interviewer that he appreciated his comparing him (Percy) to Saul Bellow. Said Percy: “He bears the same relationship to the streets of Chicago and upper Broadway — has inserted himself into them — the way I have in the Gentilly district of New Orleans or a country town in West Feliciana Parish in Louisiana.”
I read that, or re-read it, rather, this morning and thought: I now live in that very country town in West Feliciana Parish. This is a privilege that must not be wasted on me.