writers and statesmen

Jonathan Raban’s Wall Street Journal essay asks if anyone of Obama’s literary stature has occupied the White House – and also wonders if the imaginative talent on display in Dreams from My Father tell us anything about Obama’s style of governance. On the first count he concludes that Obama’s most recent competitor would have to be Lincoln. On the second count he depicts Obama as a “meticulously observant realist”, possessing a literary sensibility informed by “recognition of the limitations of first-person storytelling as necessarily partial and monocular, his experiments with multiple, contending points of view, or his hyper-alertness to what he calls ‘the messy, contradictory details of our experience.'” Which bodes well for Obama’s promised brand of practical, inclusive, consensus-driven politics.

This, Raban sees as exceptional:

The solitary existence of the writer, recasting the world alone in a room, generally unfits him for the intensely sociable, collegial life of practical politics, just as most successful politicians would as soon turn into Trappist monks as face the daily silence and seclusion of the writer’s study. There are of course exceptions: Benjamin Disraeli entered British politics as a fashionable novelist, and went on to twice become prime minister; the playwright Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia, then of the Czech Republic. But there’s no particular correlation between literary ability and high political office: think of a Melville administration, or a novel by George Washington.

At first, this reminded me of a scene from Cynthia Ozick’s Puttermesser Papers. After being fired from her job as a New York City bureaucrat, Ruth Puttermesser is aghast at the myopia of her colleagues – does not the spirit of Whitman burn in their kidneys! – and sets to imagining the types of creative minds she would place in their positions, culminatiing in this reverie:

William Blake in the Fire Department! George Eliot doing Social Services! Emily Bronte over at Police, Jane Austen in Bridges and Tunnels, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe sharing Health! Herman Melville overseeing the Office of Single Room Occupancy Housing!

And Raban’s empirical point is certainly true. But what it presents as a quirk – statesmen and great authors don’t much overlap – obscures a more prescient insight. Raban’s empahsis on the solitude of literary creation runs against exactly the description he gives of Obama’s literary talent, one which operates on the author’s ability to imagine conversations and create vivid characters from composites, in short, to distill the essence of social interaction into sentences. He also praises James and Conrad for this ability, and in more recent literature Doctorow and Robinson. All of these writers are adept psychologists. They understand frailty and motivation equally well. Too few statesman, I think, share that psychological insight. Leaders of movements, rather than states, tend to demonstrate it more often – Ghandi, King, Mandela; these reformers reached mythic stature not just because they were courageous but because they could see into the minds of their nations. All three were also writers, though not great ones.

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~ by staticandme on January 13, 2009.

One Response to “writers and statesmen”

  1. […] But I take stronger objection to the idea that a poet cannot be of a social mind. As I said when defending novelists from much the same caricature, the best writers and the greatest statesmen must both be adept psychologists.  Their power comes […]

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