At painful times, when composition is impossible and reading is not enough, grammars and dictionaries are excellent for distraction.
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning
In September 2016, seven volumes of LCS will appear, full of diversions from the mudslinging rhetoric, apocalyptic predictions, breathless exhortations, half truths, and hollow promises of the political season. As the pundits and the candidates scream their increasingly polarized and polarizing insults at one another and at us, thoughtful readers might find relief by stepping back into the solace of a dictionary of sorts to consider what writers of our times and past have had to say about causes of and the solutions for the social, political, and spiritual problems we face.
The J. G. Ballard entry in SSC 232 is a place to start for the most sardonic readers. Ballard (1930-2009) was an Englishman who wrote irreverent fiction with social and political themes. He was described by some critics as debased, but in the age cynicism, he found a large and appreciative following. In his short story “A Guide to Virtual Death,” published in Interzone in February 1992, his narrator offers a single day’s television listings from “an unnamed city in the northern hemisphere” as a clue to demise of intelligent life on earth at the end of the twentieth century. Might it have been a presidential election year?
More optimistic readers with liberal sympathies might find solace in the entry on Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962) in TCLC 333. A wealthy woman who advocated free love, Luhan conducted a series of salons and ultimately a spiritual commune in Taos, New Mexico, where she sought to find refuge from the mechanistic spirit and commercialism of mainstream American culture. In her four-volume autobiography, Intimate Memories (1933-37), she presents her life story as an argument for the American Southwest and Indian culture as sources of spiritual and cultural renewal.
If your party is Green, try Erasmus Darwin’s entry in PC 181. A poet, physician, biologist, and early theorist of evolution, he was the grandfather of Charles Darwin. In his major work, The Botanic Garden (1791), Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) meditated in verse about the fundamental role of science and technology in making sense of existence. And in his treatise on biology and medicine, Zoonomia (1794, 1796), Darwin put forward theories of an organic relation between humankind and nature that heavily influenced the Romantic poets.
An evening discussing the Darwin family might be entertaining unless your companions are fans of Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), whose entry appears in LC 257. Cudworth was one of the group of philosophers known as the Cambridge Platonists, who sought to reconcile classical and Christian philosophy. Cudworth argued that human logic was sufficient to prove, justify, and clarify religious belief. He is not known to have written specifically about the religious issues of this election, but it is a cinch that he would not have found the logic to support Erasmus Darwin’s beliefs, and yet his devotion to rational thought may serve to marginalize him among some contemporary political thinkers.
In this historic election, the first with a woman as a major-party presidential candidate, it is worthwhile to take a look at the entry in NCLC 327 on Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861). Though she is best known for her love sonnets, she was also much involved with the civic issues of her day: social injustice, gender inequality, slavery, child labor, religion, politics, class, and political oppression. Her epic poem Aurora Leigh (1857) is a proto-feminist work that examines the struggles women face and their agency in bringing about social change, touching along the way on issues of particular contemporary interest. The work ends with two women finding comfort—perhaps, as some critics suggest, sexual—in one another’s company. The title character hopes that her poetry will bring about social change.
Perhaps poetry will accomplish the trick of finding some eternal truth that will guide our lives, as Aurora Leigh hopes, but Friedrich Durrenmatt (1921-1990), whose entry is in DC 55, advised otherwise. All truth is an illusion, he warned. Durrenmatt was a crusty writer, who often attracted criticism for his irreverent treatment of traditional beliefs. His play The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi (1952), about the incompatibility of reality and ideology, was initially barred from Swiss theaters. It is cited as an example of his abiding convictions regarding the corrosive effects of ideology. That is an idea worth consideration during this political cycle.
So if you tire of partisan commercials, news coverage, commentary, and debate, on TV or the internet, research this year’s political issues in September’s LCS volumes. You will find a far more serene environment for contemplation of matters related to our national wellbeing and a lot more facts.
Layman Poupard Publishing