Political Power is its Own Reason for Being

The Golden Age CoverThe heading to this article won’t bear much scrutiny in its logical construction.

The real story is that men, typically but not exclusively men, seek political power because they like being powerful.

But again no: those who choose elective politics as their realm of interest MUST seek power simply because something in them desperately, at any cost, needs to achieve it.

There. This is what’s revealed in Gore Vidal’s fascinating, necessary, semi-fictionalized history of the USA beginning in 1939, “The Golden Age.”

I say “necessary” because it shows that the general angst, the cultural and, therefore, political divisions in American society today are no worse and probably less heated and intense, even less dangerous, than during the period covered.

In the novel are expositions on the sins and foibles of humanity, including false witness, assassination, espionage, conspiracy, perfidy, cuckoldry, etc., at the highest levels of “polite” society and national and international politics.

In that many of main fictional characters were owners of newspapers and reporters, we learn of the depth and extent of the intersections of the publishers and editors of the press, the “talking heads” (when they were newspaper columnists instead of today’s TV personalities), politicians, advertisers, and the general elite with whom all these are entwined.

It is telling that, throughout the novel, reverential reference is made by several characters to Henry Adams (1838-1918), the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, who also wrote about Washington, D.C. and national politics. I reviewed his book “The Education of Henry Adams,” heading the article. “A Friend in Power is a Friend Lost,” which conclusion Adams reached after a lifetime of deliberately “learning” about American politics and power.

There are many reviews and commentaries on this novel available on the Internet so I will not summarize it here. To show how the author had the insight necessary to use real historical characters, intertwined with the main, fictional characters, here is an excerpt from the afterword starting page 465 in my paperback edition:

Gore Vidal 1983

Goe Vidal, 1983

…I had lived through the period… I knew a number of the historical figures that I describe. Also, as one who had grown up in political Washington, D.C., I was an attentive listener to the many voices which sound and resound in that whispering gallery.

Much of the narrative is between and among fictional elite whose lives are so far removed from mine, and probably yours, that it seems almost like a fairytale of power, privilege, and social ease. It is tempting to skim over these conversations and easy to lose track of the complicated relationships among them all, but these scenes are instructive as to the lesser uses of power, the world that really makes or allows things to happen.

I recommend “The Golden Age” to provide perspective and balance for the seemingly chaotic times in which we currently live.

I have read other novels by Vidal, most recently (and for the second time), “Creation,” which I also recommend.

 

 

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What is Europe?

In 2002 I transplanted myself, due to an impulse of and from the heart to the northern aspect of Europe from the cultural decay of San Francisco, California, USA. My heart is still in San Francisco, but not in its current iteration. One of my great-grandfathers emigrated there from Kentucky in the 1850s, adding to the colorful characters having already arrived, and providing my paternal line with some roots and memories. Additionally, three of my grandparents arrived from Greece to San Francisco in the first decade of 1900, then gave birth to five children there.

Map of Europe. 1730
Emerson Kent

Since moving to Stockholm in 2002, I have visited many European cities which I wouldn’t have, had I not moved to Europe–cities in Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Czechia, Hungary, France, Spain, Croatia, Italy (very briefly in Venice), Malta, Greece, Denmark, Holland, Austria, perhaps others that I can’t bring quickly to mind.

I realize now I have always felt “European,” due to a number of factors: my father was steeped in the history and literature of Europe, and we had Europe, virtually, in our home through his declamations; I was a conscious entity throughout WWII; and, I collected stamps from throughout the world, especially European states and small regions which kept changing names and borders throughout the War and after. Additionally, my father was an active member of the San Francisco chapter of the Socialist Labor Party (he was clear in telling me that he was violently opposed to the Communists, being a ‘democratic’ socialist). We sometimes had loud people in the home arguing about events in Europe, especially in the USSR and Germany, as you can imagine. And, finally, both sides of my family have always loved the “classical” music of Europe, which is essential to sustain my spirit.

But, what IS Europe?

Well, Europe is old. It is both beautiful and grotesque, exemplifying the human condition, I suppose.

There is still some intellectual argument about the whole idea of Europe, a thing that doesn’t precisely exist, geographically, culturally.

There is a wonderful sculpture of Europa riding Zeus, as a bull, by Carl Milles at Millesgården in Lidingö, across the water from Stockholm City.

In Greek mythology, Europa was the mother of King Minos of Crete, a woman with Phoenician origin of high lineage, and after whom the continent Europe was named. The story of her abduction by Zeus in the form of a white bull was a Cretan story.

The notion of “Europe” as a distinct place in the world began around 2500 years ago with the ancient Greeks (of course), wanting, most simply put, to distinguish their world separately from that of the Persians. (I refer the reader to A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe, by Christian Meier for a comprehensive and easily read discussion of “Europe.”)

One of the characteristics of this Europe of the Greeks is that it had no center.

The perspective was not that of someone looking out from his own palace, city, or empire, in every direction and dividing up the various countries (and people) from and towards that central position. Instead, the overall picture was determined from the point of view of someone well traveled, who was not tied to one location or ruler. The point of departure was the sea, or as Plato called it, the pond around which the Greeks squatted like frogs—a universal element belonging to everyone and no one. This view of the world captured the multitude of countries existing side by side, privileging none of them.

… (T)here are many reasons not to define Europe ethnically in terms of people, per se, but it terms of what uniquely permeated and challenged them, what opened up such a massive realm of possibilities for them, and enabled them… either to take possession of or exert decisive influence over the entire world… Lionel Jones speaks of the European miracle. What he means by that is… a discrete—European—culture.

…(I)n the Middle Ages it was essentially necessary to start from scratch. No matter how intensively people may have oriented themselves time and time again towards antiquity, since the Carolingian Renaissance, … it was a unique process of cultural formation in Europe (which) has continued since. (Source)

Neither being a scholar nor classically educated, I don’t have a clear history of things and events European in my noggin to draw upon. I have bits and pieces: Socrates and his pupils Aristotle and Plato, the French Revolution, the Catholic church and Martin Luther’s defection, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, etc.

As travel Europe I see physical results of these ideas and events, mostly churches and general architecture, the arts and music, waterways, landscapes, many monuments to fallen soldiers and murdered peoples.

LA VILLE DE HONFLEUR
A SES ENFANTS DES ARMEES DE TERRE ET DE MER
MORTS POUR LA PATRIE 1914 – 1918

And the people. I am two people in any given country. I am American, and I feel, if not entirely European, a great affinity for the Europeans I see and meet. It helps to have had the experience of living five frightening and intense years in Brooklyn during my ages nine to fourteen and having gone to high school in Manhattan. I encountered many people with frankly European ethnicities—it was (still is?) part of their individual identities. Everyone in our working-class neighborhood was Irish, Italian, some residual Scandinavians, single representatives of a few others. But, we also were Americans, and proud of it.

What I love are what my father loved: the arts and music, the sciences, the literature to a limited degree, not having any language but English.

In the end, however, it is the values exemplified by the revered works of Europeans, infused as they have been by Ancient Greek and, later, Christian ideals. I cannot be a professed Christian because I don’t hanker for a savior and feel in charge of my own soul. But there is no denying that Jesus Christ as a teacher and exemplar has inspired the great works.

Having written the above I now have to make a choice: do I listen to Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, or do I listen to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater?

Thanks for reading.

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