Friday, July 22, 2016

The Deal Gone Down

I’ve made my own share of Faustian bargains. I have contributed to others’ work, either by writing for them or presenting myself as a representative of an organization. The outcome has included no small amount of personal regret, downgrades in public reputation, and has led to a great deal of contemplation in an effort to learn from my well-made mistakes. I’ve sought to make amends, admit to errors, and have surely received more than my share of forgiveness. No one gets a pass from himself and absolution is a theological fiction that renders more bypass than remedy. Learning from mistakes needs to linger, and you can’t learn if integrating the mistake comforts your belief that you won’t make it again. I mean, we need to make the shadow of that mistake a part of ourselves, the kind you can count on to haunt you, the kind that comes up in dreams, that takes you to your own Rosebud.

After Orson Welles made Citizen Kane he later explained more about Rosebud and his deeper motives. 

"The most basic of all ideas was that of a search for the true significance of the man's apparently meaningless dying words. Kane was raised without a family. He was snatched from his mother's arms in early childhood. His parents were a bank. From the point of view of the psychologist, my character had never made what is known as "transference" from his mother. Hence his failure with his wives. In making this clear during the course of the picture, it was my attempt to lead the thoughts of my audience closer and closer to the solution of the enigma of his dying words. These were "Rosebud." The device of the picture calls for a newspaperman (who didn't know Kane) to interview people who knew him very well. None had ever heard of "Rosebud." Actually, as it turns out, "Rosebud" is the trade name of a cheap little sled on which Kane was playing on the day he was taken away from his home and his mother. In his subconscious it represented the simplicity, the comfort, above all the lack of responsibility in his home, and also it stood for his mother's love which Kane never lost."

What we will do if Trump does indeed succeed in his ascent to the Presidency, if he does not in the end fail like Kane, but suceeds to convince enough Americans that his story is supposed to be the American story? He proclaimed himself last night our “voice” and the only one who can lead us from the desultory, the dark, the failures that define us. That’s his story about us. There is more here to consider.

Welles says:
"I immediately decided that my character should be a public man—an extremely public man—an extremely important one. I then decided that I would like to convince my audience of the reality of this man by means of apparently legitimate news digest short concerning his career. It was of the essence of my idea that the audience should be fully conversant with the outlines of the public career of this fictitious character before I proceeded to examine his private life. I did not wish to make a picture about his public life. I wished to make a picture about the backstairs aspect of it. The varying opinions concerning his character would throw light on important moments in his career. I wished him to be an American, since I wished to make him an American president."

We all long for a simplicity and a comfort that we imagine to be taken from us, not only like Kane snatched from his mother’s arms. What lies beneath and within our subconscious is all we collect on the way to making dreams come true. Some of those dreams come true, others linger to make longer shadows. It’s what we do with those shadows that tells us more about ourselves. Welles explains his own artistry with shadows by making a story of wealth, power, and control:

He goes on:
"I wished to use [the sled, printed with the trade name Rosebud on it] as a symbol—at the conclusion of the picture—a great expanse of objects—thousands and thousands of things—one of which is "Rosebud." This field of inanimate theatrical properties I wished to represent the very dust heap of a man's life. I wished the camera to show beautiful things, ugly things and useless things, too—indeed everything, which could stand for a public career and a private life. I wished objects of art, objects of sentiment, and just plain objects. There was no way for me to do this except to make my character, as I have said, a collector, and to give him a great house in which to keep his collections. The house itself occurred to me as a literal translation in terms of drama of the expression "ivory tower." The protagonist of my "failure story" must retreat from a democracy, which his money fails to buy and his power fails to control. —There are two retreats possible: death and the womb. The house was the womb. Here too was all the grandeur, all the despotism, which my man had found lacking in the outside world. Such was his estate—such was the obvious repository for a collection large enough to include, without straining the credulity of the audience—a little toy from the dead past of a great man."

It’s likely plain at this point where I am taking this.

Over these past few days, witnessing the coronation of Donald Trump as the Republican’s nominee for President, Tony Schwartz emerged to tell us more about him.   Schwartz wants more than to provide just commentary, he's looking for confession, his mea culpa in creating Trump.  To be clear about Schwartz, he said regarding Trump’s best-selling The Art of the Deal, “I am not sure Trump read every word but I am sure I wrote every word.”

Jane Mayer, in The New Yorker, describes at length how Schwartz helped create the myth of Trump and how he now regrets it. ( What Mayer explains is not only the book deal but the experience that Schwartz has so long kept to himself. He’d made his Faustian bargain and was content-enough living with it. Regarding his decision to write the book for Trump.  Mayer writes,

"Schwartz thought it over for several weeks. He knew that he would be making a Faustian bargain. A lifelong liberal, he was hardly an admirer of Trump’s ruthless and single-minded pursuit of profit. “It was one of a number of times in my life when I was divided between the Devil and the higher side,” he told me. He had grown up in a bourgeois, intellectual family in Manhattan, and had attended élite private schools, but he was not as wealthy as some of his classmates—and, unlike many of them, he had no trust fund. “I grew up privileged,” he said. “But my parents made it clear: ‘You’re on your own.’ ” Around the time Trump made his offer, Schwartz’s wife, Deborah Pines, became pregnant with their second daughter, and he worried that the family wouldn’t fit into their Manhattan apartment, whose mortgage was already too high. “I was overly worried about money,” Schwartz said. “I thought money would keep me safe and secure—or that was my rationalization.” At the same time, he knew that if he took Trump’s money and adopted Trump’s voice his journalism career would be badly damaged. His heroes were such literary nonfiction writers as Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, and David Halberstam. Being a ghostwriter was hackwork. In the end, though, Schwartz had his price. He told Trump that if he would give him half the advance and half the book’s royalties he’d take the job."

Schwartz took the sweet deal that eventually amounted to several million dollars, the sort of money that can buy a house, education for your children, and enough comfort to do something else. Schwartz has done all of those things. He also finds himself in the very uncomfortable position not only of having taken the money and done the devil’s work, but wanting us to believe what more he has to say about Trump ---all of which is alarming, whether the issue is Trump’s intellect or his ethics. I have no doubt that Schwartz is sincere and that he is credible. What is equally as fascinating is the deal he now has to make with himself to live with himself.

As you hear Schwartz’s story you begin to realize, as he did, that The Art of the Deal was deal he knew he was making when he made it. Had Trump merely remained, well, Trump and not an election away from the nuclear codes, Schwartz would have had to contend only with his conscience, not the moral consequences of having helped create the perceptions that have undoubtedly “legitimized” Nominee Trump. Schwartz has dire thoughts about what Trump is capable of doing. It seems there is more than his conscience at stake, at least that is why he again risks his reputation ---and if Trump’s lawyers have their way, his fortunes too.

I’m not sure Tony Schwartz is feeling any better about all this despite his repeated interviews during the convention on MSNBC and in The New Yorker. He has thoroughly documented his experience, been threatened with cease and desist letters from Trump’s eager lawyers looking for him to return both his writer’s advance and royalties (his 50% deal is nearly unheard of generosity), but did not sign any non-disclosure agreements. It seems the call of conscience has inspired this warning to the country: don’t do this, Trump is a fraud. I think we would have known that without Tony Schwartz but I’m not ungrateful for his shadow awakening.

Urban Dictionary is going to need a new entry under “day late and a dollar short” for this one and while it’s too late for the Republican Party, the rest of us really can still do something about it. We can vote and make this a sorry footnote to history with lingering consequences, ones we have not even imagined. Tony Schwartz would be mightily relieved just to see Trump return to his fatuous self-ambitions, as will the rest of the civilized world. Schwartz repents his enabling and I admire his willingness to take the fall. I hope he doesn’t have to give back the money, at least not to Trump, and that his kids got that education. We all make our deals.

David Brooks, who similarly has enabled the rot that exposes the hollow core of Republicanism, wrote today, “This is less a party than a personality cult.” And where was he when that rot was something that sold more books or got establishment Republicans elected? And still gets them elected? Just when will this cease and desist? Let me put it another way: is David Brooks too capable of lingering long enough to learn from his mistakes? (

I’m going to take this just one more place because this is an essay about lingering, about staying with the shadow rather than escaping, forgiving, or redeeming. It’s about giving everything another try. So let me give this one more try with one more story because try we must if we are to learn and learn to linger in places too uncomfortable to imagine.

Okay, so there’s a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which Picard makes a deal with the Alien Q to go back in time and get a do-over. Picard avoids a bar fight he always regretted and when he comes forward again in time discovers that he is not the same person. He is not only of lesser rank, his reputation and character are both requisitely diminished.

There are no take-backs, no do-overs and there are no guarantees things would be worse or better if there were. What we do know is that all of us have those kinds of regrets and skeletons and addressing the shadow means more than honest confrontation and excavation, it means there is still more hidden than we are likely to uncover. What we do about what we have done is enough to indict all of us and make us the real enemies to ourselves. McCarthy tells us in Cities of the Plain,

"Our enemies ... seem always with us. The greater our hatred the more persistent the memory of them so that a truly terrible enemy becomes deathless. So that the man who has done you great injury or injustice makes himself a guest in your house forever. Perhaps only forgiveness can dislodge him."

I’m not sure that forgiveness can dislodge such an enemy, whether that means forgiving another or forgiving ourselves. I am sure there is sorrow and suffering enough in every person’s life to disarm our most noxious hostility, even the sort we project on others to pacify our more primal instincts. Here the Buddha helps because the first of his Noble Truths demands we take suffering seriously. We humans find fault because it exists, not because it is our original sin (isn’t that sex or disobedience or something?) but rather because fault is part of a world that would have no character, would evolve to no better place without breaks and tears. How could we discover any more than what we already know without the connections that fail to bring us consolations?

In cases of defence 'tis best to weigh
The enemy more mighty than he seems;
So the proportions of defence are fill'd. (Henry V, II, 4)

Tony Schwartz, David Brooks, Jan-Luc Picard, perhaps all the rest of us too underestimate the power of this temptation, the Faustian bargain, whether we know we are making it or not, the one we are willing make to create the life we can when we cannot see enough life ahead to feel safe, to get what we need or want. I know I have done as much, made that choice that I see more clearly now when the dark glass then seemed a protection from the storm, not merely an obscuring of the light. We cannot do again what has been done. Instead we can learn from commiseration that who we blame always includes ourselves. How we change for the better depends on our willingness to act again, to make amends, to make the shadow linger with us. Doncha’worry, as my mom used to say, you’re not alone in this. We’ve all made our deals.  Own them.  Make sure they linger.

When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.
Who alone suffers, suffers most i' th' mind,
Leaving free things and happy shows behind.
But then the mind much sufferance doth o'erskip
When grief hath mates and bearing fellowship. (King Lear, Act 3, Scene 6)