By broad acknowledgement, this presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named has been the worst in living memory—the lowest, the vilest, the most vitriolic. The current low point—though this campaign can always go lower—revolves around HWSNBN’s alleged instances of sexual assault. It all leaves conscientious Americans feeling sullied, hurting, depressed. We are far, far, far from what Lincoln called “our better angels.”
This campaign also, because of HWSNBN’s frightening lack of understanding of democracy and rule of law, coupled with his penchant for autocrats and their violent methods, makes conscientious Americans shudder with fear: Is the damage done to our democracy permanent or is it reparable? And, oh, the damage we’ve done to ourselves in the eyes of the world: Can we ever regain our pride and good name?
It all combines to make one yearn for what the Roman poet Virgil calls “the upper air,” where truth and beauty reign, where instead of this heaviness on the soul there is a lightness, what Italians call leggerezza. It matters not that this realm, the upper air of the ideal, does not or cannot exist in reality. To use Michelle Obama’s potent catchphrase in another way: When you are low, low, low, you dream of high.
So, if as poet John Keats says, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” here are the high places my mind goes, not only for a deep cleansing, but for release, for solace, for hope and fuel. Where I could manage it, my examples come with metaphor, intensifying the meaning. Starting with the aria—meta-metaphor alert—”Peace, peace, my God”!
SONG: To start, “Pace, pace, mio Dio” from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. The sublime “Flower Duet” from Delibes’ Lakme. To remind us of the beauty humans can create in groups, Handel’s Messiah. And for their calming effect, Gregorian chants (more here).
MUSIC: Bach, the Master, always elevates; here’s a cello suite and “Toccata and Fugue” for organ (more here and here). Vivaldi’s Four Seasons transports us back to Nature. Here’s an abundance of Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven; singled out are Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and, for the majestic, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. For those mourning the damage done to America, Chopin’s nocturnes and the requiems of Mozart, Brahms, Verdi. My favorite chamber music is Ravel’s Piano Trio. The French make a point of beautiful music, so here’s Debussy, Poulenc, more Ravel. For ineffable beauty, Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” and Elgar’s Enigma Variations; for esprit, Walton’s “Crown Imperial.” Metaphor alert: For a New Day, Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony and Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
And enjoy again the American songbook—Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Berlin—all sung by Ella Fitzgerald. Enjoy again the American sound of Ellington, Goodman, and Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.”
DANCE: See Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to “Cheek to Cheek,” “Waltz in Swing Time,” the fun “Pick Yourself Up.” See Fred and Cyd Charisse with the lovely “Dancing in the Dark.” See Fred and Rita Hayworth in an amazing number in You Were Never Lovelier. Of course the mind seeking joy goes to Gene Kelly’s iconic number in Singin’ in the Rain. Here’s the iconic ballet in The Red Shoes, with Moira Shearer. Apt now is Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, created as “blood memories” of African-American life. Metaphor alert: Prodigal Son, with Mikhail Baryshnikov.
ART: Rather than large-scale work—history paintings, Biblical parables—I’m thinking more human. Portraits, for example—by da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Rembrandt, Modigliani, and Hans Holbein for his portrait of the humanist Erasmus (also here, here, here). A postcard of Velasquez’ portrait of Aesop sits on my desk. At this fraught time, Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of our nation’s founders, including Abigail Adams, resonate. Likewise, simple things resonate: the sea (Courbet), the view out a window (Bonnard), Matisse’s colors. I love Van Gogh’s expressiveness (also here, here, here), especially in his final work, “Wheatfield with Crows”; I love Vermeer’s humanity, especially in his “Geographer,” bent over maps, looking up to the light. With misogyny so blatant in this campaign, I think of the art of Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Anon. I think of Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” Finally, metaphor alert and going large-scale: Goya’s “Colossus” and Raphael’s “St. Michael Slaying the Dragon.”
LITERATURE: The poet Virgil, cited above, bears quoting in full (in one of my life-credos): “Easy is the descent to the lower world; but to retrace your steps and to escape to the upper air—this is the task, this is the toil.” Another life-credo is from Orwell: “The fact to which we have got to cling, as to a lifebelt, is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet to be fully alive.” Camus has inspiring words for this fraught time, from his novel The Plague: “….to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
In American letters, I think of Emerson’s question in his essay “Politics”: “Are our methods now so excellent that all competition is hopeless? Could not a nation…. devise better ways?” I think of Thoreau’s advice: “Simplify, simplify.” I think of Edith Wharton’s description of America’s Gilded Age, in House of Mirth: “A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals.” See her novel The Custom of the Country, the “custom” being the getting and spending of money.
Melville, in the opening of Moby-Dick, just happens to nail both the need for escape and the month for it: “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” See also Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (full audio-book here).
In Henry Adams’ novel Democracy, a historian says: “Democracy asserts the fact that the masses are now raised to higher intelligence than formerly. All our civilization aims at this mark. We want to do what we can to help it…. I grant it is an experiment, but it is the only direction society can take that is worth its taking…. I am glad to see society grapple with issues in which no one can afford to be neutral.”
In drama, I think of the lines from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, near the end: “I can’t go on like this.” “That’s what you think.” Not often recalled are these lines from Godot: “We’ve lost our rights?” “We got rid of them” (full performance here). On the loss of America’s reputation, I think of the dishonored John Proctor’s lament before he’s hanged, in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!…. How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” For America at its very essence, revisit Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece (full movie here, with the young William Holden).
Shakespeare speaks to all circumstances; here he presents humanity at its best, in these lines from Hamlet: “What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” Of course, HWSNBN is no paragon. Shakespeare would take this man’s malign measure instantly, as he did with Macbeth, Richard III, Iago. Coleridge speaks of Iago’s “motiveless malignity.”
In poetry, Auden’s description of the 1930’s as a “low dishonest decade” applies to our moment. That said, solace is to be found in personal ties, as Matthew Arnold in “Dover Beach” writes: “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another! for the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new, / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; / And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
For the long view, my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson: “This World is not Conclusion. / A Species stands beyond— / Invisible, as Music— / But positive, as Sound— / It beckons, and it baffles— / Philosophy—don’t know— / And through a Riddle, at the last— / Sagacity, must go— / To guess it, puzzles scholars— / To gain it, Men have borne / Contempt of Generations / And Crucifixion, shown— / Faith slips—and laughs, and rallies— / Blushes, if any see— / Plucks at a twig of Evidence— / And asks a Vane, the way— / Much Gesture, from the Pulpit— / Strong Hallelujahs roll— / Narcotics cannot still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul—”
With a family emergency ongoing, I’ve been going to the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul….”
Speaking of restoring the soul: some lightness. For sheerest delight, I go most readily to the films of the ’30s and ’40s, when Hollywood served up inspiriting diversion for hard times. (Apologies in advance: Clips cannot be found for all the following; you’ll have to go to the full movie, which is pleasure in itself.)
See Katharine Hepburn drive Cary Grant crazy in Bringing Up Baby; see Cary Grant drive Rosalind Russell crazy in His Girl Friday (full movie here); see Barbara Stanwyck drive Henry Fonda crazy in The Lady Eve (full movie here); see Joel McCrea drive Jean Arthur crazy in The More the Merrier. See Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy fall in love in Woman of the Year; see Bette Davis and Paul Henreid put their love in context in Now, Voyager (last scene here); see Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn do the same in Roman Holiday; see Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in their last scene in Casablanca (also here); see Bogie and Bacall lay the metaphors on each other in The Big Sleep. See It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, Dinner at Eight, and, more recently, the hilarious Moonstruck. See Bette Davis deliver her famous line, “I’d like to kiss ya but I just washed my hair.” See a drunk Jimmy Stewart drop in on Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story. See William Powell go fishing in Libeled Lady. See Irene Dunne sing “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” See Jimmy Cagney sing and dance in Yankee Doodle Dandy, also dance down the White House stairs. See Sullivan’s Travels for the importance of laughter in bad times.
To gird for the final days of this awful campaign—and for the repair work afterward—some gallantry as seen onscreen (sorry, no clips available). See Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver, set in World War II, especially the scene where they talk of mundane things while German bombs drop overhead. See veterans of that war come home to altered futures in the magnificent movie, The Best Years of Our Lives. To push back against the toxic bigotry unleashed by HWSNBN, see Gregory Peck fight the good fight, against anti-Semitism, in Gentleman’s Agreement.
Post-election, a first order of business will be rescuing our debased language. The process is reversible, contends Orwell, and necessary: “To think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” Reading Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” will restart your engine. For now, best speeches of this ugly season have been Michelle Obama’s powerful response to HWSNBN’s misogyny and her message at the Democratic national convention: “When they go low, we go high.”
To the upper air! And to get us there: Fred and Ginger again—”Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”
Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death,” which include “Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks” and “Kate and Kafka,” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.” She blogs for The Huffington Post.