Sunday, 25 January 2009
Apropos of inauguration speeches: the inner library
...And it is interesting in itself, the way we develop specialised languages to deal with situations, so that in the end we have several voices and go through life carrying round a permanent, semi-conscious library of them, a library that, for most of life, is in the business of expanding and developing ever new sections, wearing out some old ones in the process.
For some it is a matter of pride to say: I talk just the same to everyone. It is, in some ways, a curious form of egotism, as though it were a matter of honour and virtue not to bend to the other or others, not to take on a little of their presence. I had a friend who took great pride in being honest, in giving his opinion whatever the cost. The pride was in the giving of the opinion. The pride was, in effect, greater than the opinion. It was a form of display and control. The truth was to be seen being determined in his way. No mealy-mouthedness for him. His yea was yea and his nay was nay. Except nay was far more forthcoming, if only because nay is generally more dramatic. Ideally there would have been a bodily attitude, a gesture, some series of noble direct movements such as you can find in Victorian aids to orators. A proper drama. The point was it was clear and looked authoritative. Unfortunately, the opinion ceased to count for very much after a while. It was just a touch overbearing and annoying. Eventually just dull.
So we talk differently to different people in different situations. Human communication is infinitely supple: language is capable of a vast range of inflections. It's what poets live on after all. It is the gift of fine hearing that distinguishes them. That is why hearing a poet consistently blustering or making an uninterrupted series of authoritative gestures always sounds slightly false. Something vital to the act is being deliberately dropped. What remains is the impression of a moral bully, and - maybe worse - a psychological huckster.
In politics the balance is different. We expect a degree of hucksterism. We want it. We want chords to be touched, grand phrases and reiterations, the rhythms of public emotion. Such rhetoric is almost a form of courtesy, just as in ordinary life we might welcome someone asking how we are, or a compliment when we have made a special effort to appeal. There are appropriate gestures in all situations but they tend to merge into each other so we have to work at decoding them: courtesy from shiftiness, eloquence from grandiosity, substance of message from form of message. We actually want to decode: code is courtesy.
Jonathan Raban is looking to pick out the radical elements in Obama's speech, and having looked, like all who look and wish to find, does find some. They are not concrete proposals yet, but indicators of intention: one hangs on to them in hope. Each man seeks what he hopes then looks for some confirmation that what he has found is really there.
For example, Guantanamo Bay is to be closed. Very good. It shouldn't have been there in the first place. Then two ex-detainees turn up in Al Qaeda videos. Does that mean it was wrong to close Gitmo? No, that is an instance of choosing ideals over safety. It is concrete. It corresponds to our notions of justice. I very much doubt whether Abu Ghraib post-Iraq invasion was as bad as Abu Ghraib under Saddam, but in torture and humiliation there is no delicacy of comparison. In our politics - and that is to the credit of our politics - it is simply wrong. In any case, closing Gitmo is psychologically welcome. It is tough being your own villain and it's a relief to think we can go back to being, however relatively, virtuous and right.
This does not mean the question of the ideal versus the safe is going to go away. It never goes away. Nor are we ever absolutely virtuous and right. God is absolutely not on our side. Obama's speech shows that we should try to be virtuous and, in so doing, end up being - and feeling - right. There is much that is to do with virtue rather than expediency in the speech, but, in financial terms, it has to be expedient too. Some of the speech is just what we like to hear. Some of it will get done. We decode the courtesies of the speech to try to guess what that might be.
Sometimes the thought of that decoding makes me feel tired and rather old world - by which I mean European, with a European's history and experience, furthermore a specific kind of European, that is to say one of Hungarian and Jewish extraction with all the baggage and consciousness that implies. But that does not mean I have no hope, nor that the experience is all gloom. Much that looked desirable but impossible has happened in my lifetime.
That hope, perhaps, is what I want to read into Obama's speech, and much of it is there. It really is. Look! I'ts there, I can see it. And that's more than good enough to be getting on with.