Progression, Profluence, or Pandering Populism
Updated: May 18
An essay on time metaphors, James Joyce, political parallels and ancient Rome- By Brian Keeler
There is this idea of ascendant momentum that has been an undercurrent of so much of, well life in general but also of many historical occurrences small and grandiose. I am referring to such pervasive attitudes that seemed to inform large swaths and small sub groups of populations. The first that comes to mind is the very optimistic attitude that was reportedly part of the dynamic of many in Europe and America prior to the outbreak of World War 1. I’ve read in numerous accounts of that period,
such as those essays by scholars speculating about James Joyce’s life at that time. As the most ghastly brutality ever unleashed by humans on each other through militaristic obsessions engulfed Europe, James Joyce was conceiving and writing his masterpiece, Ulysses. Not obviously related to the horror of the trenches, still the lives of Nathanial Bloom, his wife Molly and Stephen Daedelus bring us many aspects of the mundane and internal subjectivities that perhaps show a foil or alternate to the jingoism and mass nationalisms that would sweep millions to their deaths. These characters from Joyce's Ulysses, their internal dialogues and delight in the everyday aspects of the quotidian in fact offer the vantage of the flaneur who takes inspiration at random, as life presents to them. A foil perhaps to the mass carnage across the English channel at the time.
Joyce’s very title is a nod to ancient Ulysses and the corollaries drawn to the Dublin characters and most interesting to the inversions of epic heroism and virtue- as it plays out in one day of June 16, 1904. As is easily discerned, Molly Bloom with her lustful monologue is no stay-at home Penelope and Bloom himself is no paragon of virtue either,but there are some overlaps between Bloom and Ulysses. Yet they all triumph in Joyce’s retelling of Homer’s epic with some dignity and humanity still in tact the end. There are episodes of extreme debasement prior to this however, such as the Circe in Night Town chapter, where Bloom is subjected to all kinds of humiliations at the hands of the perverted matron of a brothel. As if to underscore this affirmation at the conclusion, is the iconic voice of Molly Bloom saying “Yes.” This yes, now emblazoned on tote bags and coffee mugs one can purchase in Dublin’s bookstores and in the Joyce Museum.
My purpose in this essay is two-fold, (one), to show that I see a similarity to the optimism of pre-WWI Europe and that experienced by my generation in the last half of the 20th century up to current times, and (two), to show a parallel to the collapse of the Roman Republic of ancient times. I know its pessimistic perhaps and doer, but in way, not so much. The later, in ancient Rome that is, I’ve read or heard of numerous impressions from op-ed pieces, essays, conversations, books and social media posts where the unraveling and debasing of institutions of government seem overwhelmingly clear. From public education undermined with Betsy DeVos leading that agency to Scott Pruitt formerly demeaning the Environmental Protection Agency to all the rest of the swamp rats working to undermine their charge. I’ve mentioned Stephen Greenblat before in other essays, but its worth recalling his work again. He has a recent book out titled Tyrant, where he compares the antagonists from Shakespeare’s plays to our current situation. As Greenblat says, it takes a population willing to be lied to on a continual basis to enable tyrants.
I don’t think that I am alone in the belief that our ventures in life somehow have a purpose and a trajectory toward an evolving betterment. Our parental guidance, teachers, spiritual and religious luminaries, mentors and life itself can all be viewed with a wide optic of gently nudging all of us toward some grand plan that is gradually growing to a higher virtue- hopefully. I don’t think that I am alone now also, in being incredibly dismayed at how all the altruism, hope, good deeds, beneficial policies of the past 200 some years of the United States are being systematically swept asunder by a power-mad, self-obsessed demagogue. You see the parallels in ancient Roman as the Grachi brothers tried to initiate land reforms and unwittingly set in motion the unraveling of centuries of civility. As one post on social media claimed; it is as if this fellow in the Whitehouse was sent to destroy every worthwhile policy and the norms of comportment and civility in one four year period.
The term profluence, used in this essay heading is a literary term that connotes a forward momentum, as in a plot that keeps the audience engaged. A similar overarching theme or credo could be hoped for or imposed on history. Part of my inspiration for this commentary came from a New York Times article in their November 24 issue of last year, where the author, Crispin Sartwell asks, “How Would You Draw History?” It was a fascinating read that presented these models for conceiving of history. The act of drawing history also appealed to my artistic side as well. Crispin offers us six types of models from which to use as our encapsulating forms for history. The first is one inculcated from our grammar school that suggests that history is linear, as in the years all moving toward something. And with my own propensity toward altruism, this one also has the idea of progression and evolving as inherent in the model. This is being questioned today. But not to loose heart, there is the “Loop Theory” which allows for periodic retrogressions. Others include the “Loop Spiral” sort of golden mean- type of nautilus shell unfolding outwards. Then there is the “Big Bang” which includes every possibility all emanating outwards simultaneously. Then the “Circular” model, as in history repeats itself, and the “Dialectic” which conceives history as oppositions such as communism/capitalism working towards a balanced paradigm. One interesting model of time not mentioned here in the Times article comes from the philosopher Paul Brunton who advises us that all of our incarnations are happening simultaneously- which suggests that time itself is an illusion in a certain sense.
There are many metaphors for history. Winston Churchill supposedly quipped that "history is just one damn thing after another." And the intellectual character in James Joyce’s novel, Stephen Daedelus in Ulysses drones to Mr. Deasy, the headmaster at the Dalky School where he was employed, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” History is up for grabs sometimes too, as with the current revisionists urges that want to claim that statues of Southern Civil War Generals represent objective history and not exalted glorifications of horrendous politics. And as a high school history teacher told us, history is written by the victors of wars, which is to say, if WWII had gone differently, Hitler and Joseph Goebles along with other propagandists would be using eugenics and Aryan Race supremacy theory to inform our history. Or the Batan death march would be eulogized in marble on the national mall or on the courthouse lawn. Statuary is not inherently neutral reportage of history- by its very nature the figures are ennobled and on plinths. Another one is, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes with itself.
So it seems that in these times of post truth and post decency with assaults on civility coming in tweets and rallies on almost daily basis, that we are indeed in a parallel time to both WW1 and those days of slipping governance in ancient Rome. All the environmental, health, education, governmental procedures of courts and civil rights are being trampled daily as we watch. For our generation growing up with all kinds progressive idealism we can only shudder at the rallies of hate organized by our demagogue-in-chief. When we think that not another lower depth of disgusting verbage or policy could be had, we are delivered another, as this week, when the DT poses with a massacre’s surviving infant in a thumbs up pose. Apparently crowd size obsessions and positive press are at the expense of consoling a devastated victim or stopping gun violence. As one friend says of the 45, whatever comes out of his mouth, you can rest assured it will be the wrong thing.
I am hoping we are perhaps in a loop theory mode of history or better yet the spiral loop, which both suggest that there are periodic back-slidings only to resume at some point after hitting the nadir. Many have wondered if the nadir or bottom-out point will ever actually be reached with the current occupant of the Whitehouse- as there seems to be no depth that cannot be dug deeper by the next transgression. This also brings to mind many of the scoundrels that attained the purple robe of the Emperor in Rome. There were in fact so many reprobates and vile characters that assumed that roll that is easier to list the good Emperors, the Antionines. My favorite of these good emperors is Marcus Aurelius. I am reading a wonderful synopsis by a British author, Donald Robertson, titled, “How to Think Like A Roman Emperor.” This compendium seeks to relate how Marcus’ life as a general, philosopher and statesman parallels Cognitive Behavioral Therapy of today. Marcus’ book “The Meditations” and his ardent embrace of Stoic philosophy render him an admirable model of virtue.
With a singular vacuity of aplomb and rectitude in the highest office we can wax wistfully for an enlightened despot if not an outright leader with some sort of moral compass. So in a way, I suppose here in the US we were overdue for our own buffoon, judging from the plurality of these characters in ancient Rome. To verify or confirm this assessment most of the voices that I respect and look to for incisive analysis and articualtion are pretty much universal in their disdain for the 45 including the Boston Globe, which recently opined, Does Trump have any redeemable qualities? Nero, Caligula, Commodus and other dissolute Romans all seem to have too much in common with our own megalomaniac, from towering egos, flaunting the law, disrespect for traditions and depravity to self-serving agendas that bring down the government. A lecturer on the Emperors of Rome that I am listening to singled out one of these ancients as being most debauched; his name was Heliogaba
lus. The lecturer mused that this emperor’s idea of governance was so askew, that it would be like the president of the United States inviting pole dancers, NASCAR fans or heavy weight wrestlers and their fanatics into the Rose Garden. I think we had Ted Nugent and some white supremacist in the oval office or in the Rose Garden recently and those rallies of MAGA people are not far from Nazi rallies in pre-WWII Munich.
I’ve been privy to the rawness of the right- its not difficult as its is flaunted and on display everyday from guys like Steve Bannon who encourages his followers to wear their racism as a badge of honor. Its come to this really. If you’ve ever slipped into a Facebook feed of some former classmates, as in high school, you’ll know the vehemence and obtuseness of their opinions. Even the Wall Street Journal has a group of op-ed commentators, some of whom promote the most egregious stuff. Then there are letters to the editor, radio talk shows and toxic web sites like the ones inspiring recent mass shootings etc. So these echo chambers of hate and their effects are the new trenches and mustard gas of our 20th century tantamount to Verdun of 1916.
The supposed liberal media is to blame. You would think there were some sort of conspiracy if not a "deep state" as goes their risible claim. Their shallow state (which would seem to be preferred) by them begs for light. Hardly in the media or even the left wing were amongst the clerical leaders of the Washington National Cathedral. They voiced there disdain thusly; "When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover to white supremicists who consider people of color sub-human infestation in America. Violent words lead to violent actions." And finally in an implicit indictment of MAGA gatherings they asked, "When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say with one voice that we have had enough? The question is less about the President's sense of decency. but of ours."
But back to time metaphors and the flip side, with the 50th anniversary of the gathering at Yasgur’s Farm just passing we can reflect on the aspirations of the Woodstock generation and the refrains of “we are stardust” or “we’ve got to back to the garden” and so much more. The words of our inspired leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr, Bobby Kennedy or Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog and the ideals of bringing people together for the common good are all regarded with respect by many. By contrast today, all attempts for the common good are branded with a knee jerk reaction and labeled socialism with disdain. Or even more pertinent perhaps, the language and inspirations of our founding fathers used for the constitution and their core ideas of democracy, that were in many ways inspired by the classics and statements of Rome’s more profound thinkers such as Cicero, Seneca, Lucretius and others. Now instead of leagues of nations, we have a selfish separation of long held alliances and corruption of the worst kind at the highest levels of government. This is the new legacy.
So it is with a wider optic that we can hopefully see our debased nation and take heart in the fact that metaphors for time and history may offer us a vision of the return of sanity and kindness.