During the presidential primaries, I picked up a copy of The Art of the Deal. My financial exposure in the deal I made at the cash register was minimal—it was a paperback.
My underlying business strategy: I would read that thing in the unlikely event its author would win the Republican nomination. Who knows, it might be possible to gain insight into his mind. Also, quoting Donald Trump could become my parlor trick. And I could annoy my wife and children.
I ended up reading that book in the way fundamentalists read the scripture. I hate to admit this, but great fun can be had with The Art of the Deal and a sharp No. 2 pencil. As I did this, I reminded myself that things could be worse. Vladimir Lenin’s complete works are arranged into 45 hefty volumes and Joseph Stalin’s into 16.
The margins of my copy of The Art of the Deal are heavily annotated with exclamation marks, all manner of expletives, even miniature drawings. I didn’t just underline—I color-coded. Here is something one can use in daily life: “I like to think big. I always have. To me it’s very simple: if you are going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.”
“Old man Goethe could not have done better,” I scribbled on the margins.
Also, this from Mr. Trump: “There are people—I categorize them as life’s losers—who get their sense of accomplishment and achievement from trying to stop others. As far as I am concerned, if they had any real ability, they wouldn’t be fighting me, they’d be doing something constructive themselves.”
My response: “Does this not prepare you for pretty much everything that has happened so far and everything that is about to happen?”
And I would be remiss to neglect this: “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.”
“Indeed!” I concurred on the margins.
Had these lines in The Art of the Deal been uttered by a character in a novel, what would you be able to say about that character? This can be a game. Any writer with a dog-eared copy of the DSM-5 can play. Perhaps a professor at a place like Bard could fashion a lovely workshop to develop this character—how does he live, what does he eat, wear, think?
After my fundamentalist reading of Trump, I resolved to make 2017 the year of reading masochistically. I didn’t plan to read dreck. The Art of the Deal was but my starting point. My next step was to torture myself with good stuff. Heeding the call of inner voice, or possibly an inner chorus, I went to my neighborhood bookstore and bought out the entire Bertolt Brecht lineup, figuring that as a Communist who has seen the rise of fascism in Germany and the heyday of McCarthyism in the U.S., Brecht might have something to say.
The Brecht selection at the bookstore was surprisingly light. So, I supplemented on AbeBooks, acquiring a stack of slender, pre-loved, pre-underlined tomes
Until this year, I experienced Brecht one play at a time. Having self-administered a high dose of Brecht, I felt more than my usual level of anger at the forces of darkness and more than my usual level of resolve to stand up and confront them no matter what the cost. It is with a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction that I must report that I plowed through almost the entire Brecht without even a faint urge to self-mutilate. Disclosure: I am not now nor have I in the past seven years been in therapy.
I emerged with confirmation of the not-entirely-surprising notion that political repression is good for literature. At least for a while, it’s good for journalism as well. Ipso facto, had I been voting to advance my professional interests, I would have voted for Trump.
My pile of slender tomes of Brecht included a rarely produced play, Schweik in the Second World War. Brecht took the Czech national hero, a fictional dim-witted World War I soldier named Schweik (spelled Švejk in Czech), and extended his life and adventures into World War II.
After going through that play, I found myself turning to the novel that inspired it: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. Mine was a fine Russian translation, but I am sure there are great English translations as well. Just make sure you get the copy with cartoons. They are as good as the prose.
Is Hašek’s Švejk really a dimwit or is he pretending? We never learn, and it’s entirely possible that the author doesn’t really care about the answer. But we do learn that when the world goes mad, as was the case in World War I, it takes a thick coat of feeblemindedness to remain sane.
When Brecht extends the novel to World War II, his Schweik meets Herr Adolf Hitler in the snows of Stalingrad. In Brecht, the chorus always get the best lines:
The times will be changing. The intricate plotting
Of people in power must finally fail.
Like bloodthirsty cocks though today they are strutting
The times will be changing, force cannot prevail.
There you have it: “Force cannot prevail.” From Brecht’s chorus to God’s ear; yes? Few things are as comforting than determinism. For the record, I would support any proposal to have choruses roam the streets or stand on every street corner and just sing. There is no such thing as too much truth.
I am ending the year on a genuinely masochistic note: Ezra Pound.
I had the neighborhood bookstore special-order me a copy of The Cantos. As the specter of fascism pops up in places like Charlottesville, it may or may not be relevant to know that it’s possible to be both a fascist and a great American poet.
I am still on the early pages, but I am putting my No. 2 pencil to good use, and I picked up a copy of The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, by Daniel Swift, to inject some reality into the situation.
Here is what I am able to report so far: The Cantos are incomprehensible, but I am finding some priceless lines.
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