Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Um . . . so he really is Obamessiah?

Stanley Fish
"smiling wisdom from the epicine . . . picine . . . piscine era"
(Image from NYT)

In his NYT column "Think Again" of October 26th, "The Power of Passive Campaigning," Stanley Fish reaches for a literary analogy to describe Obama's campaign style.

Fish reminds us of Obama's unusual calm -- what Charles Krauthammer calls a "first-class temperament" -- during the past few weeks' swirling chaos:
We saw it in the 10 days when the activity around the mounting economic crisis was at its height. Henry Paulson alternated between scaring members of Congress and scaring the public. Nancy Pelosi alternated between playing the responsible Congressional statesperson and playing the partisan attack dog. Media commentators went from one hysterical prediction to another. John McCain went from saying there's nothing to worry about to saying there's everything to worry about to saying that he would fix everything by suspending his campaign to saying that he was not suspending his campaign and that he would debate after all.

And Barack Obama? He didn't do much and he said less (O.K., he did say some reassuring, optimistic things), and his poll numbers went up.
Fish doesn't cite Krauthammer but does turn to another conservative pundit to make his point:
He just stands there looking languid (George Will called him the Fred Astaire of politics), always smiling and never raising his voice.
Meanwhile, John McCain gets angry -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- and ever more energetically attacks Obama, who does nothing. Fish asks:
What's going on here? I find an answer in a most unlikely place, John Milton's "Paradise Regained," a four-book poem in which a very busy and agitated Satan dances around a preternaturally still Jesus until, driven half-crazy by the response he's not getting, the arch-rebel (i.e., maverick) loses it, crying in exasperation, "What dost thou in this world?"
Fish assures us that he doesn't "mean to suggest that McCain is the devil or that Obama is the Messiah (although some of his supporters think of him that way), just that the rhetorical strategies the two literary figures employ match up with the strategies employed by the two candidates."

Concluding his analogy to Paradise Regained, Fish gives Milton's explanation for why Obama's strategy works:
Toward the end, the poem describes the mighty contest in a metaphor that captures its odd and negative dynamic. Jesus is "a solid rock" continually assaulted by "surging waves"; and even though the repeated assaults result only in the waves being "all to shivers dashed," they keep on coming until they exhaust themselves "in froth or bubbles." The power Jesus generates is the power of not moving from the still center of his being and refusing to step into an arena of action defined by his opponent. So it is with Obama, who barely exerts himself and absorbs attack after attack, each of which, rather than wounding him, leaves him stronger. It's rope-a-dope on a grand scale.
In short, Obama need do nothing at all, but simply remain calm within the chaos that buffets about him, and he wins? Well . . . maybe. It's not over yet, and unlike in Paradise Regained, there's no predetermined winner.

But Fish is clearly onto something with this analysis, and it need only be turned around for some obscure Milton scholar to offer a new perspective on Milton's depiction of Jesus: "The Son's Rope-a-Dope Strategy in Paradise Regained?"

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At 2:03 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

Perhaps Barack Obama has studied Rudyard Kipling's poem "If", and has internalized it, particularly the lines:

"....If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you......"


"......If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same......"

At 5:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Perhaps so, Christopher. It's good advice.

(My 11-year-old daughter read that poem just yesterday evening and liked it for the advice.)

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:56 PM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

Fascinating-- a neat contemporary use of Milton. But then, I have always found PR one of the dullest of Milton's works. Could America really be entering a stage of Paradise Regained? I worry that Pope's "Dunciad" is closer than Milton's final work. A great post. Fish does like casting his nets

At 9:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, good to see you again. I confess that I, too, find Paradise Regained somewhat dull.

Nevertheless, Fish's analogy seems to work.

But to carry the analogy to its bitter end . . . there is a Passion Week (albeit not in PR).

Jeffery Hodges

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