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The Founding Fathers’ group portraits, most of them commemorating great moments in the early life of the nation, blazon the American “civic religion.” The solemn stares, the excellent posture, the iconic stillness of the bodies in the deliberative shrine project the ultimate anti-drama—a place where, like heaven in the Talking Heads song, nothing ever happens. But, of course, there’s no heaven on earth. Historians stress the artists’ retrospective abstraction: in reality, so-and-so was not even there, while these two other men loathed each other and were seething after a painful compromise, not posing in peaceful unity. And to judge from some of the actual decisions of the era, and from some of their consequences—most glaringly, the Civil War—Greek tragedy would have been a more appropriate inspiration for the paintings than that neoclassical cliché, the sublime calm of Greek and Roman statuary.
This tension between the idealized image and the ugliness of history has been on my mind during this scarifying winter, and I wonder whether the two cannot work on each other, to evil ends. I am a translator and literary scholar, so I turn toward texts to find my bearings. Texts are one of the many kinds of objects that political conflict can elevate into a realm where they do not belong and where they serve to sanctify hatred and greed. Scrutiny of such a process goes against my grain; cheerleading for the power of texts has been my business for forty years. But, alas, it’s time. Even Americans who didn’t contribute directly to this mess should be asking how their national culture did. And in the realm of texts, the evidence is not reassuring.
In one video clip, an insurrectionist is moving toward the Capitol, a reporter following along and asking him why he’s doing this. The Constitution, he answers. The reporter persists: Has this man read the Constitution? The rioter is momentarily stumped. He’s read...parts of it, he says. The reporter presses, saying that he himself has read the whole thing and that it’s a short document, but his interlocutor has lost patience with the exchange. To him, there’s no point in discussing this document—in pouring measured layers of words onto the original words—because to him it’s not really a document, much less a foundation of law and governance. It’s a sump for his lower urges, but a sump now lifted into quasi-divine status and leaking poisonous fluids from the skies. Some legal scholars like to talk about the “living Constitution,” emphasizing its adaptive development over the centuries. To the alt-right, it lives in order to give them power and pleasure; hence their lack of interest in what it actually is, and their fixation on what it can do for them. In other words, it is an idol.
It would be a mistake, however, and a route toward smug divisiveness, not to see this attitude in very long perspective, and not to acknowledge how much all of us participate in it—especially those of us who cherish the written word. It is understandable how we fell into this trap. Since its invention, writing has seemed magical, and, in the public sphere, a sort of savior. Once trade became documentary, long-term transactions became far more reliable; they didn’t depend on self-interested memory and which party was able and willing to beat the tar out of the other to get the result he wanted. The truth was on a tablet stored and guarded in a temple—the clay tablets of Mesopotamia are associated with the beginning of writing. Once laws became documented, ordinary citizens did not have to accept the elite’s on-the-spot, verbal reports about sanctioned rights and duties; a summary of these might even be inscribed permanently on government edifices. The Twelve Tables in ancient Rome were one instance: “If someone is summoned to court,” they begin, “he must go.” If he cannot walk, he is entitled to a cart but not cushions. The written word lasted, guiding and vindicating you when nothing else could.
“Sacred literature” is something of a misnomer when applied to the ancient world; all writing had a certain aura of prestige and wonder. This aura was immeasurably heightened in the Jewish scriptures, the earliest Bible, which didn’t just regulate a polity; it practically created one out of the ashes of the Babylonian conquest near the start of the sixth century B.C. The Bible became the difference between memory and oblivion, meaning and meaninglessness, existence and annihilation amid the routine conflagrations and genocides-by-enslavement in a strategic corridor of the ancient Near East. The Christian Bible retains this status of being not just there at the creation of something momentous, but active in that creation as a primal and immortal embodiment of God’s will. The first chapter of John’s Gospel even asserts that the “Word” (logos, originally meaning a financial account, suggests a verifiable record) existed before the universe did.
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