Romance of Death, Sublimity, My Email • 16 June 2008

Political-culture journalism at the turn of the 70s was like a polite bloody fistfight of the Dead Poet’s Society. Highflown but edited crisp, seething but restrained, snottily fratricidal with a huge goddam vocabulary and no compunctions about Shakespeare-based explanations. I’m too bad-mannered and prone to comma splices to capture its perfection in just a sentence. Alex Cockburn, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Calvin Trillin and of course WF Buckley: so addictive they made the year I spent obsessed with Contra War history a bit obscenely gratifying. It’s surprising I didn’t turn in to a historian of all this snot-nosed refinement, disappearing back into the era of my childhood as a way to stay competent and avoid the polyglot, deregulated chaos of the present.

And maybe I will go back eventually, and settle as an historian of 1976-84 or so. Although then I would write this way all the time, and you would leave only to be replaced by sag-faced, chalky professors and students who only listen for the test questions.

Nevertheless I have to excerpt the Lewis Lapham aria that Matthew K sent me. Apropo of neo-Camelot, Edward Kennedy, hero worship, and maybe the placebo effect but nothing else really. It’s from Harper’s, December 1979. “Romance of Death.”

By the way, I have letters to a few people sitting here in a backlog in my head, but I am not sure when they will get written. I’m trying to follow an order of operations that places the dissertation first. No fun; but also, no guilt. Soon. Meanwhile here is Lapham, tracing a myth right out of his hot little typewriter. My idea of aesthetic pleasure.

To the extent that Senator Kennedy remains invisible, he can be defined as a gravitational field, drawing to himself devotees who imagine that their own lives acquire meaning only insofar as they fall within the sphere of a magical object. The same kind of adulation attaches itself to rock stars and celebrated criminals. On the few occasions when I have come across Senator Kennedy in a private circumstance I have found him, as in his public persona, besieged by flatterers and hangers-on, by the Bacchantes who would devour him and yet, at the same time, who protect him as it he were the reflection of a god….

This kind of adoration has an unhappy effect on the people subjected to it, and I can imagine that Senator Kennedy must be sick of being admired for reasons that have nothing to do with himself—because of his name, because people look to him for miracles, preferment, or relief from boredom…. But if the adulation of the mob has a dissolving effect on its victims, it has an equally dissolving effect on the people so eager to negate themselves in the fires of self-immolation. The expression on the face of [devotees of Senator Kennedy] I have seen in the faces of the disciples of Hare Krishna…. I noticed it most recently at the Council on Foreign Relations, among the leading citizens who had come to listen to Senator Kennedy’s views on foreign policy. As is his custom, he said nothing of substance, choosing instead to propound a series of platitudes. But the distinguished ladies and gentlemen who composed the Senator’s audience had come to be taken out of themselves, to be transformed in the presence of power, and so they listened to a banal speech as if it were a song sung by Mick Jagger.

Over the past twenty years the mere willingness to campaign for the office of the American Presidency has come to be understood as a self-destructive act…. The American electorate apparently seeks to elect constitutional deities on whom it confers absolute power for a brief period of time and then, discovering itself betrayed, it tears the god to pieces. If the king must die, then only a man as detached from life as Senator Kennedy, cast in the image of every man but himself, could be persuaded to set forth on so perilous a journey.