Washington is both a city and a metaphor. In most ways, it is livelier as metaphor, a shining civics lesson, and a swamp of scandal. Day and night it gobbles and spews information, papers, and policies. The city’s residents live near unfolding history and important people—I walk by Senator John Kerry’s house daily—yet we exist, for the most part, outside of history. How many DC residents have real access to insider knowledge: 5,000? 500? As FBI man James Comey explained: “people talking about [classified information] often don’t really know what’s going on. And those of us who actually know what’s going on are not talking about it.” So, 699,500 city-dwellers must imagine the rest of the narrative, weaving together hunches, shreds of gossip, and speculation into some hazy image, a “what’s going on” that only the powerful know.
Washington insiders operate in political terms; DC residents are relegated to work in imaginative—that is, literary—terms. Now, literary thinking may seem a weak sister of political debate and machpolitik. Yet it has gathered new force in the Age of Trump: for even as terms are being thrown out to describe his presidency—from “autocrat” to “idiot”—the powerful sense grows that we have entered the realm of the absurd. A new healthcare law will deprive 23 million people of healthcare—millions of them Trump supporters. Russia meddled in the election; Trump fires FBI director Comey investigating it; the Kremlin, unasked, renews Trump’s copyright privileges in Russia. George Orwell’s 1984, with its “doublethink,” “newspeak,” and alternate math “two and two is five,” is back on the best-seller list. Absurd realities pile up daily, reporters can hardly keep pace. Some people, binge-watching the several investigations and reports, complain of a “Trump Ten” weight gain.
Are we ushered into the absurd by such local paradoxes? Paradox after paradox, stacked like lumber until we face a “big bundle of unified nonsense,” as today’s Washington Post wrote about healthcare deprivations. In art, the pleasure of accepting paradox is acknowledged by John Keats as Negative Capability: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Here, perhaps, stands the fault-line between our political instincts for debate, news, “fact & reason,” and our more loose-jointed art impulses, seeking symbols, hidden byways, “Mysteries, doubts.”
These two modes of thinking—political and literary—compete to dominate the Washington narrative. Does the city employ them equally? Not really: the literary remains Washington’s Unacknowledged Legislator, disliked and distrusted by the political. Demanding facts and logical coherence, today’s news-hunting Gradgrinds are irritated by paradox, dreams, or visions. They consider literary thinking, which does commerce with Mysteries and uncertainties, as feckless and soft, like Leslie Howard in the old movies: a sensitive, wan aesthete searching for a light at the end of the tunnel. But that light comes from a train about to barrel him over.
To be sure, literary “doubt” indicates doubleness, and that can include “doublethink.” But doubt and paradox are accepted elements of literary judgments, interesting and useful—even necessary. Why resolve them? But Washington politics sees doubt only as ignorance and weakness; as for paradox, it is called “contradiction,” and treated as a kind of hypocrisy. Both ignorance and contradiction must be resolved in debate.
Political thinking readily offers dark visions about the outcomes of literary, fanciful thinking. If we drift to sleep wondering how a cow jumps over the moon, well, we might wake up inside Kafka’s Metamorphosis, punished for our dreams by becoming a cockroach. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes warns us not to tolerate absurd nonsense terms such as “round quadrangle” or “accidents of bread in cheese.” From this view, artistic double-thinking—the “this-yet-that” capability that delighted Keats—leads to moral catastrophe. The actual, painful world will pop your dream-bubble. Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” Similarly, Orwell: “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”
The battlefield, certainly, provides a first home for the absurd, as literary novels from The Red Badge of Courage through Catch 22 have shown. Orwell, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, refused to shoot a fascist whose pants had fallen down. A battle-cry of that war: ¡Viva Muerte!, Long live Death. But it is a more civil war—fought jaw to jaw—that makes Washington’s daily bread. In James Comey’s recent senate testimony, political fact-finding and literary hunches would each contend for dominance: whichever narrative was persuasive, the other one would seem false, and absurd. It was not a moment when, as F. Scott Fitzgerald supposed, you can easily hold two opposing ideas in your head. Over 20 million people watched his testimony, more than the NBA finals (whose outcome was less in doubt).
By dawn, people started waiting in line at DC bars broadcasting the hearings. Comey quickly gave patrons their money’s worth: he claimed that President Trump told “lies, plain and simple” about the FBI, and that, at their White House intimate dinner pour deux, Trump spoke of Comey’s investigation of Gen. Michael Flynn, who had just resigned: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey said he wrote down notes immediately after every private meeting he held with Trump. Why? “The circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with,” Comey answered. Regarding the nature of the person Comey was interacting with: “I was honestly concerned that he [Trump] might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document.”
So Comey, before meeting with Trump, had worried that Trump might later lie; months later, he claims that Trump did indeed lie. The core issue in this narrative, then, is the question of character. To gauge character, Comey weaves together several literary strands—the setting, the dialogue, the tone, and his hunches about the man. Comey is finding his path through the realm of Mysteries, doubt, subtle readings of character—and yes, supplementing them with reasoning and fact: for Trump’s public lies had been well-catalogued before the January inauguration, and now number in the hundreds.
Can imagination work in tandem with practical knowledge? It seems so here. Perhaps the quaint notion of reading “character” has re-emerged as a master coin in Washington. It certainly held value a hundred years ago, when banker J.P. Morgan—who once bailed out Wall Street—testified before a Congressional committee on trusts. Morgan was asked how a person qualifies for loans—how someone’s ability to get credit is determined.
Q: Is not [someone’s] commercial credit based primarily upon [his] money or property
A: No, sir; the first thing is character.
Q: Before money or property?
A: Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it.
For Morgan, character brought loans, credit:
A: I have known men to come into my office, and I have given them a check for a million dollars when I knew they had not a cent in the world.
Likewise, the question for Comey’s testimony became one of character, personal credibility. The committee senators, their faces dewy with Arnoldian high seriousness, focused on the primal political issue: what did Trump’s comments mean? Was he sharing a wan personal desire, or was he trying to press Comey to do his bidding?
Comey testified that Trump was pressuring him: “I took it as a direction.” Conservative and progressive senators divided on this question in predictable fashion, but each of them became, briefly, what Marianne Moore called “literalists of the imagination”: they tried to imagine tone, context, and intent for the term “hope,” a word echoing Bill Clinton’s home town in Arkansas, and Barack Obama’s bestselling The Audacity of Hope. Given that the country remains battered by an election filled with personal accusation, resentment, and cultivated fears, it was perversely satisfying to hear our public servants parse this term.
We needed John Le Carré or Thomas Carlyle to join the inquiry. Instead, we were left with Senator James Risch who, with a litigator’s precise reductionism, tried to maneuver Comey. “Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where this—they said, or thought, they hoped for an outcome?”
Comey didn’t know of a case one way or another, but legal scholars later found cases where people have indeed been prosecuted for this. Senator Kamala Harris suggested that we certainly would understand a gunman telling us, “I hope you will give me your wallet.” As for tone: perhaps Trump was being playful, as he was when boasting of grabbing pussy, or shooting someone on the streets of New York. The anecdotes provided by juridical questioners couldn’t firmly establish the tone and context of Trump’s “hope” comments: they shrank the question to a prosecutor’s either/or. Dialogue, tone, context, character: can they be treated as essentially factual, or should they remain the stuff that literary Mysteries and hunches are made on?
Senator Angus King, though a lawyer, tried the literary route.
KING: When a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like “I hope” or “I suggest” or—or “would you,” do you take that as a—as a—as a directive?
COMEY: Yes. Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
KING: I was just going to quote that. In 1170, December 29, Henry II said, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” and then, the next day, he was killed—Thomas Becket. That’s exactly the same situation. You’re—we’re thinking along the same lines.
Briefly, imaginative and literary thinking took center stage at the senate hearing: a shared cultural memory showed how an autocrat would stage a sly command. He said this; he meant that. It presented, in Marianne Moore’s metaphor, an imaginary garden with a real toad in it. Jobless English majors across the nation cheered, gratified for having taken their SAT prep course. There it was: a literary topos, not a political disclosure, that had finally spanned the DC knowledge gap—the gap between insider knowledge and the public’s general ignorance. It displayed how literary thinking, even as it seeks the marks and methods of human behavior, must weigh its observations against memory and misleading associations. Literary insights tempered by doubt and self-correction are not double-think absurdities, not political contradictions, but efforts at mature judgment.
With Comey’s exchange with King, the humanists had their day; yet within weeks of the hearing, Trump boasted that his tweets and remarks had forced Comey to tell his story, not—as most everyone else saw—that Trump’s lying about FBI morale had prompted Comey to disclose the “hope” comment publically, and thus to induce the FBI to hire a special investigator. And with that, Washington had shifted back: two and two might be five. Trump complains of “fake news”; meanwhile, his golf resorts have posted fake Time Magazine covers featuring his picture.
Hobbes contended that absurd statements should not be called “error,” but “nonsense.” Yet our experience with the absurd, after Beckett, Camus, and Co., has broadened beyond that; the absurd now offers a consonant world view one can live within. In Orwell’s geography of the mind, this should not be possible. “Plain, unmistakable facts [are] being shirked,” he complained, “by people who in another part of their mind are aware of those facts.” In Washington terms, this means that the 70% of Fox viewers who thought Saddam was responsible for the 9/11 attacks were somehow, somewhere aware of the fact that he wasn’t. But cognitive dissonance may now be easier to suppress, given our divided, self-reinforcing news-watching habits. There is not “another part of their mind” where true facts are found. Orwell, curiously, was being optimistic.
Political and literary thinking move in parallel; sometimes they collaborate, and sometimes, as in the Comey hearing, they provide vastly different answers. Facts can pop the dream-balloon; but art, in its turn, can needle the bloated body politic. Each has its task. From political research we get Barbara Tuchman’s detailed narrative on the causes and vanities leading to the Great War: The Guns of August. From literary imagination we get Thomas Hardy’s ironic ballad “Channel Firing,” with its startling image of skeletons waking up to cannons roaring their “readiness to avenge” the attacks that have yet to happen. Hardy rhymes “avenge” with “starlit Stonehenge,” casting together the present political, the musical, and the mythic. And the prophetic: Hardy wrote the poem in April, 1914, four months before the war. Beyond the realm of reason lies a shadowland of doubt and uncertainty; we can only traverse it in sudden, leaping assumptions: of character, tone, dialogue, literary reference, and metaphor.
How reliable are such materials? Robert Frost warns us not to take metaphors too far. He lauds the “tantalizing vagueness” of poetry, its “way of saying one thing and meaning another”; yet he advises us first to gain “the proper poetical education in the metaphor” and, more broadly, in “figurative values.” We should “know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness,” Frost notes. Otherwise, “you are not safe anywhere”: “you are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.” Nor safe in the prosaic, treacherous city.
The avenging arts of poetry may be figured like that ancient, circle of sacrifice, Hardy’s Stonehenge; or like the circling ditches of Dante’s Inferno, found in the woods near the city that exiled him. Dante may have lost the political battles of his day, but he then created a literary, and post-mortal payback for evil action. After your death, your body will suffer endless punishment—punishment that is figured as a metaphor of your crime, but that has become as real and physical as fact. For Dante’s Ugolino, it was to eat the brains of the man who forced him to eat his children. What lies ahead for Trump? There may be some outcome beyond the body’s last meal, the “ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink” (David Ferry). Perhaps Trump will be gorged on the suppurating diseases of 23 million sick people, and become the “infinitely suffering thing” that appeases “the conscience of a blackened street” (T.S. Eliot). Mr. Trump, welcome to your table.
David Gewanter is the author of In the Belly and The Sleep of Reason (both from University of Chicago Press) and co-editor, with Frank Bidart, of Robert Lowell: Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Faber and Faber). His latest book, War Bird, was published by University of Chicago Press in 2009. Awards include a Hopwood Prize, Zacharis First Book Prize, Whiting Writer’s Fellowship, and Witter Bynner Fellowship. He was a finalist for the James Laughlin Prize, and his edition of Lowell won the Ambassador Book Award from the English-Speaking Union and “Book of the Year” from Contemporary Poetry Review. He teaches at Georgetown University. (updated 12/2016)