The pink, white-veined marble lobby of Trump Tower was my sanctuary. For six years, its gilded atrium served as an escape from my corporate day job and reality in general. On hot summer days, I liked being a poor playwright in a pretend palace, an over-air conditioned Versailles. I’d make personal calls, eat Trump pizza and dream of future plays—the space’s superficiality was strangely useful for self-reflection. Its gold-painted restroom corridor was useful for literal self-reflection, handy for a tie-straightening before rejoining the real world.
Watching this insincere space transform into “the center of the political universe,” per a recent NY Times headline, has been disorienting. The fake palace has become a real one. The Player King is now King. The birth of “White House North” sent me reaching for my copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, which I’d read in college. I remembered being fascinated (and confused) by its postmodern discussion of “artificial” spaces like amusement parks, spaces like Trump Tower, and whether they are any less ‘real’ than the urban spaces outside their perimeters:
Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation… This world wants to be childish in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the “real” world, and to conceal the fact that true childishness is everywhere—that it is that of the adults themselves who come here to act the child in order to foster illusions as to their real childishness.
Trump’s childishness, his unruliness—so enjoyable in “imaginary” realms like “Celebrity Apprentice”—is disorienting as it invades the Oval Office. What is this dislocating feeling?
We’ve felt it before. Recalling 9/11, urban theorist Mike Davis wrote:
Watching the South Tower of the WTC collapsing on its thousands of victims, a friend’s child blurted out: “But this isn’t real the way that real things are real”… There is a proper name, of course, for this eerie sensation of reality invaded by fantasy. “An uncanny effect,” Freud wrote, “is often easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality.”
Uncanny times make it difficult to locate concrete truths. Journalists strain to be generous. The NY Times headline, “Trump Diversifies His Cabinet With Latest Picks,” sounds like the President might be nominated for a 2017 GLAAD Media Award; the content itself reveals a slew of bizarrely under-qualified appointees. “Trump Won’t Pursue Charges Against Clinton,” said the New York Post, suggesting magnanimity—though how does a journalist accurately convey the story of a President-elect disclosing he won’t be prosecuting someone for a crime they haven’t committed? Recently Trump received positive reviews for his ability to skillfully veil nationalist and isolationist leanings during his first joint-house address.
Artists and philosophers are better at processing complex realities during unreal times. They aren’t required to simplify conflicting realities to make them more digestible. Artists can run in the other direction. By making a familiar thing unfamiliar, they know it can be seen more clearly. In recent weeks, in preparation for a class I teach, I’ve been rereading works which—though not written in response to the current political climate—have been useful in illuminating the present. A sampling:
- James Baldwin’s brilliant, expansive body of work continues to explode ideas about American realities—the reality of the American dream, of a free nation built on the backs of slaves and cheap labor, and of whiteness itself. From White Man’s Guilt:
…People who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world. This is the place in which it seems to me most white Americans find themselves. Impaled. They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.
From Stranger in the Village:
The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization (the present civilization, which is the only one that matters; all previous civilizations are simply contributions to our own) and are therefore civilization’s guardians and defenders. Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men. But not so to accept him was to deny his human reality, his human weight and complexity, and the strain of denying the overwhelmingly undeniable forced Americans into rationalizations so fantastic that they approached the pathological… People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.
Baldwin’s unsparing, prophetic insights not only provide a deeper and more honest understanding of the black/white experience, but also help fathom a White House whose response to immigration crises and #blacklivesmatter is the appointment of a racist Attorney General and the return of an Andrew Jackson portrait to the Oval Office. Such actions can be generously called unconsciously grotesque guilt-ridden acts of self-preservation. Ungenerously, they are grotesque guilt-ridden acts of self-preservation.
Excerpting Baldwin does him a disservice. You should read his collected essays, or start right now by watching his Cambridge debate with William F. Buckley in full online:
- Wallace Shawn’s protagonist in Aunt Dan and Lemon destabilizes perceptions of Nazi Germany by forcing us to listen to a sympathizer: “Today, of course, the Nazis are considered dunces, because they lost the war, but it has to be said that they managed to accomplish a great deal of what they wanted to do. They were certainly successful against the Jews,” Lemon says, matter-of-factly. Shawn forces his audience to face the un-faceable reality that millions supported Hitler, and forces us to witness that appeal, not providing an escape.
- Ionesco processed his strange reality of fascism under the Romanian Iron Guard via Rhinoceros, the story of a town swept up by news of rhinos running wild in their streets. Eventually even the townspeople who were initially suspicious sprout horns themselves, their skin turns green—it’s easier (and less maddening) to join the stampede than to get trampled by the herd. In his short play The Leader, high praise precedes a Leader’s much anticipated arrival…only to reveal, upon entrance, that the Leader has no head. Literally. Just when you think this will be a blow to the Leader’s worshiping fans, his admirers assert being headless doesn’t matter because “he’s got genius.”
- Lorca, in a 1932 lecture in Madrid, turns views of New York City’s financial district and financial system—and New Yorkers’ belief in its permanence—on its side:
The terrible, cold, cruel part is Wall Street. Rivers of gold flow there from all over the earth, and death comes with it. There, as nowhere else, you feel a total absence of the spirit: herds of men who cannot count past three, herds more who cannot get past six, scorn for pure science and demoniacal respect for the present. And the terrible thing is that the crowd that fills this street believes the world will always be the same, and that it is their duty to keep that huge machine running, day and night, forever.
- Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard reconciles irreconcilable political and social shifts. The play has an uncommon grasp on how rich people sometimes cope with inexorable change by throwing a party and dreaming about time travel: #MakeRussiaAristocraticAgain. Chekhov even appears to be reaching across time to give us post-election therapy when Lopakhin utters: “Oh God, if only we could move faster through this next part…if only we could make our sad, awkward lives change faster.”
- Freud, in his essay about the uncanny, “effs” the ineffable nature of uncanniness itself via etymology:
The German word [for “uncanny”,] unheimlich, is obviously the opposite of heimlich… meaning “familiar,” “native,” “belonging to the home”; and we are tempted to conclude that what is “uncanny” is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar. …among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheimlich. What is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich. … In general we are reminded that the word heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which without being contradictory are yet very different: on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight.
The skill of these great minds—their ability to locate deeper truths by making the recognizable unrecognizable—is enough to make me question my own perception of Trump and his monstrousness, and whether it is, in fact, reductive. How much is the hideousness I ascribe to him linked to opposing truths—to my own hideousness? Am I in my own Baudrillardian simulation of reality?
My grandfather was an immigrant from the Middle East. I am gay. I marvel at the alt-right leanings of Bannon and Trumpland because my own personal theme park includes Celebration of Immigrants Island, and inside every day is Diversity Day. Separation from personal truths doesn’t seem like the answer; neither does turning opposing realities to reductive falsehoods.
I decided to read Trump’s The Art of the Deal in search of what his tower and its architecture meant to him. The pink, white-veined marble I remembered so clearly from my lunches in the lobby features prominently in one section:
Finally, we came upon something called Breccia Perniche, a rare marble in a color none of us had ever seen before—an exquisite blend of rose, peach, and pink that literally took our breath away. Of course it was incredibly expensive—in part because it was a very irregular marble. When we went to the quarry, we discovered that much of the marble contained large white spots and white veins. That was jarring to me and took away from the beauty of the stone. So we ended up going to the quarry with black tape and marking off the slabs that were the best. The rest we just scrapped—maybe 60 percent of the total. By the time we were finished, we’d taken the whole top of the mountain and used up much of the quarry.
Trump’s cavalier disposal of the marble and boastful pride in gutting the mountain—in light of his recent executive order banning refugees from seven nations—triggers a strange dread inside me. Such destabilizing feelings, Freud tells us, aren’t caused by the invasion of new things we’ve never seen before, but by deeply familiar things in fantastic disguises. Baldwin showed us how something like sentimentality can mask sinister cruelty; Halford Luccock, in a 1938 sermon, warned us about an even more bravura disguise:
When and if Fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism.”
Baudrillard, too, knew that humans, unconsciously, are nostalgic for the fascist epoch. We are uncomfortable with peace. Or, as Orwell put it, “War is peace.” The allure of fascism is not the nostalgia of a people for a more racist, divided country, but nostalgia for the sheer intensity and power that accompanies it; a desire “to resurrect the period when at least there was history, at least there was violence (albeit fascist), when at least life and death were at stake.”
Wallace Shawn cuts to the marrow in his preface to Aunt Dan and Lemon:
It would be flattering to believe that we are superior in some way to the audiences who cheered for Hitler—more insightful and perceptive, let’s say, or less bloodthirsty—but I think it would be more prudent to make the assumption that perhaps we’re not. At least we should allow ourselves to imagine that possibility for just a moment. After all, if we do turn out to be superior—if we are, in fact, a uniquely benign and harmless group of people, blessed with unusual clarity of vision—then our moment of over-cautiousness will have cost us nothing. Whereas if it should happen to turn out that we’re not superior, our self-examination might save a lot of people—possibly all people—from being harmed by us.
Kathryn Schulz echoes this sentiment in her recent New Yorker essay, “The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad”:
One of the biases of retrospection is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own—that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within.
Reading Luccock and Shawn and Schulz’s linked sentiments isn’t redundant; it’s essential. In the coming years, artists will succeed at finding new ways of saying familiar, painful truths. That resurfacing is the way human ears will actually continue to hear them. Russian literary theorist Victor Shklovsky knew this: “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar.’” Shklovsky observes that Tolstoy’s genius wasn’t that he wrote about unprecedented topics, but because he knew how to make deeply familiar things seem unprecedented. Familiar subjects like love and war seem strange and new again in his voice (the incomparable Paula Vogel is known for bringing Shklovsky to the attention of her students, several of whom introduced him to me).
Chief among the unpleasant truths I hope will continually resurface in new ways in the coming years: Americans are no wiser than others who succumbed to Nazism, fascism, or communism. History reminds us of this fact; art helps us process it.
To those who feel isolated and alienated by the incoming administration, and to the Trump supporters who cast their vote because they feel alienated and discarded themselves, like cast-off in a quarry: Resist the urge to run away from strange realities that disrupt your own. You don’t have to embrace them, God knows, but go further down the wormhole.
Even uncovering a few facts about the origin of the marble in Trump Tower altered my perception of a space I knew well. The Breccia Perniche, once merely amusingly ostentatious, now seems dangerously excessive.
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