This is an addendum to this piece I wrote about House of Cards, up at The Guardian, on how downright naive the show seems now. It didn’t belong in the piece, but gosh-darn it, Trump’s greatest victory is teaching us that there’s no point in a good old-fashioned close-reading, and there’s a perfect experiment here in how contemporary America is different from the Underwood’s USA, and it’s in how their respective candidates handle the appearance of racism.
The Underwood’s United States is strikingly innocent and moral compared to our own. Underwood’s America needs to be handled. Things still need to be spun.
Compare, for instance, how Donald Trump and Frank Underwood handled the exact same scandal in their respective worlds. Trump’s father, like Frank’s, has been accused of associating with the Klan. “How do you deal with it—in this world—when your father is accused of hob-nobbing with the Ku Klux Klan?” Jason Horowitz of the New York Times asked Trump. Here’s the Republican frontrunner’s reply:
“It never happened. And by the way, I saw that it was one little website that said it. It never happened. And they said there were no charges, no nothing. It’s unfair to mention it, to be honest, because there were no charges. They said there were charges against other people, but there were absolutely no charges, totally false…
Because my father, there were no charges against him, I don’t know about the other people involved. But there were zero charges against him. So assuming it was him — I don’t even think it was him, I never even heard about it. So it’s really not fair to mention. It never happened.”
Follow the litany of contradictions at work here. If your claim is that a thing never happened, how is it “unfair to mention” the thing that never happened on the grounds that “there were no charges.” Charges for what?
Notice the infantile world-view that builds over the course of this sentence: “Assuming it was [my father]” leads to “I don’t think it was” leads to “I never even heard about it” leads to “it isn’t fair to mention,” which proves, therefore, that “it never happened.” Facts be damned: the only measure of whether something took place is whether Donald Trump has heard of it.
Which, of course, he has. We know Trump has heard about his father’s association with Klan, since a) he told us so, b) he’s giving an interview about it, and c) he’s going to great lengths to convince us that the incident he ostensibly never heard of ended in no one being charged—a peculiar thing to know about something you’ve never heard of that didn’t happen.
This—as Eddie Izzard famously demonstrated—is how toddlers argue. It isn’t cunning. It isn’t deceit. It isn’t even manipulative. It’s unskilled, obvious, simple lying. Trump’s “it never happened” is Eddie Izzard’s kid in trouble saying “I was dead at the time!” (It’s also Freud’s “Broken Kettle,” which he stole from Eddie Izzard)
Do Trump’s supporters like him because he “tells it like it is”? Clearly not. They like him because he tells it like it isn’t, and it’s so obvious there’s no missing it. They’re not stupid, he is. And they prefer that. They’re not stupid, they’re furious. They’re so angry with the political establishment that they’ve made their choice: they prefer an obvious and unskilled liar to a politician whose deceptions they can’t easily see through. Better the devil you know.
CSG: You have lichen sclerosis, which can make your outsides fuse together. We think it’s caused by low estrogen.
CSG: You also probably have endometriosis, which can make your insides stick together. We think it’s caused by high estrogen.
Me: Crap. Wait—so my estrogen is both too low and too high?
CSG: it is counterintuitive, yes
Me: That’s not what counterintuitive means
CSG: No? Oh well
Me: So they’re related
CSG: Not at all. One has nothing to do with the other
CSG: So there is no cure for either
CSG: You could try pregnancy
CSG: Sometimes it helps
Me: But I thought you said infertility was a common side effect of both these things
CSG: It is, yes
Me: so then…
CSG: but it’s worth a shot, right? Plus: sex!
Me: But I came to you because it hurts to move. Like, at all. So sex doesn’t sound fun
CSG: I see
CSG: We could try menopause!
Me: How would that work?
CSG: We can make it happen chemically. It’s pretty awesome, actually. It’s a drug called–
Me: No, I mean why would that help?
CSG: fewer hormones!
Me: But you said lichen sclerosis was caused by a hormone deficiency
CSG: I’m talking about the endometriosis
Me: But what about the lichen sclerosis?
CSG: They’re unrelated
Me: They’re not that unrelated. They’re both on me
CSG: What is your point
Me: Won’t the hormone deficiency driving the lichen sclerosis get worse if we try this for the endometriosis?
CSG: Well, you’ll of course have to take some hormones to counteract the side effects of the menopause
Me: But then—so—wait, what?
CSG: You know, hot flashes, that sort of thing
Me: No, I know what menopause is, but you’re saying I have to take hormones to replace the hormones we’re deliberately stopping to see if stopping hormones works?
CSG: It’s your choice, of course
CSG: Maybe after three months of menopause you’ll be able to have babies!
Me: Why would that be?
CSG: … hormones?
Me: Do you think I’m one of those TV sets you fix by banging them really hard on one side
CSG: Look, we just don’t know, sometimes it works
Me: Okay. So if we do the temporary menopause, that means no ovulation and no pregnancy
CSG: No ovulation, that’s right, but you can get pregnant during it
CSG: But you shouldn’t
Me: I thought you said pregnancy might help?
CSG: Not during menopause, though. Afterwards
Me: So pregnancy after menopause but not during menopause might help with the pain caused by my insides and outsides which are in some danger of “fusing” because I have way too much estrogen and also not nearly enough. That’s what you’re saying
CSG: Exactly! Well, maybe
Me: Even though I am possibly already infertile
CSG: You got it
Me: This is the best treatment plan you can give me in this, the most scientifically advanced nation in the world, where we can turn vulvas into functional penises and transplant hearts
CSG: Remember, you’ll have to use condoms when you have sex
Me: I am not having—nevermind. Okay
CSG: And remember, it might not be endometriosis at all
CSG: If the menopause helps, it probably is
CSG: it also might not help and it could still be endometriosis
Me: So the diagnostic value of this is–
CSG: We just want you to make an informed decision
CSG: So you wanna give the menopause a shot?
CSG: That was a joke. It is a shot!
I found a diary from when I was six.
nothing very exciting is what we did
today I have a school day darnet. I have to get up at 7:00! It is tiring to have to do it almost every day I hate getting up so early its no fun but, have to.
well first today I brushed my teeth, and did that stuff. at school today I went to my seat Ryan makes me nervous every time he comes to sits next to me. nothing very exciting was what we did. we played at lunch recess to spin I’m sorry Diary let me go here were home now I want to sleep.
Liliana goodbye Liliana
Today we watched Discovery the spaceship land, it came down gracefully and successfully. We also played a game called Break the Bench, I had to jump as hard as I could on it so it might break, and we could get new ones, this was in Didion because we didn’t like the benches and the principal said that if a few more benches broke (three were already broken) we would get new ones.
[addendum, smashed in at the bottom of the page:] and I got sent to my room.
The name erin
(sticker: Patty O’Green)
Today I went to the park in school. We played about five games of Bingo. Tomorrow it will be Game Day and I might win lots of prizes. We did do some work at school. But we did take a contest. And I wished I won. But somebody else did.
[In purple marker and big letters, apparently added later:]
The name Erin. And I never won any of those games.
treats of good bye
Today it was game Day! And we did more games than work. We got treats of good Bye. And I won FOUR prizes And I am very happy.
[In purple marker:] I had a good time.
[In pencil:] I got Three erasers and one marker the kind you put in books with a treble clef decoration.
white as fudge
Today I went to school and I like a boy named Rian Eliasberg and He likes me His moms name is Lisa E. and today we made gohsts That spin I won the contest of spinning. I named my gohst Fudgy because he’s white as Fudge and I know three Rians Rian Elias Berg Rian Wunch and Rian Olairy or O’leary I don’t know how to spell it after that we did a little math then it was time to go. And then I wrote recipies and now writing in you. And I watched The cosby show and then I practiced the piano then I went to bed and went to sleep.
(sticker: gold star)
Today I am very excited we are having a Halloween party even though it’s Friday tomorrow it’s Saturday Halloween! I am so happy. today I went to school I sit next to Rian Elias berg he loves me too Today he saved me from his friend Jeff JEFF Jeff wrote on a piece of paper GIRLS I HATE
Rian also said to Jeff: if you put Lili’s name on there I’m going to kill you and he said in secret to him Jeff that he wanted to Marry me when I heard Jeff tell me that I was shy after school Rian called me and kissed me on the phone and now it is time to say goodbye
(extra sticker: blue irises)
press a leaf
Today is Tuesday. I went to school and had a lot of trouble getting up,
[In blue marker:] first, Beatriz came, woke me up. But I fell asleep.
Then I went to school I sit next to Ryan Elias-Berg.
Today I went to recess, nothing very interesting we got reminders to press a leaf. Ryan Elias-berg loves me and some I like him in a matter in fact he’s nice but his friend is just horrible. now I got home from school.
and then to sleep
(sticker: pastel bluebird carrying a red book in its talons)
I keep getting itchy blisters on the arch of my foot.
I read Alison Bechdel’s Are You my Mother? for Mother’s Day. Started it Sunday in the pool, finished it today in a storm.
It reminded me–tangentially, because of how it uses Adrienne Rich and Woolf—of how much of what we write about television has been written before—about books, about women. Frustrating to know it’s all out there, better done. But we all forget and forget and forget, and so (here’s my feeble rationale) since tv compels “our” attention, it’s an occasion to rehearse and remind. But there’s nothing new we’ve said. If it’s worth writing, it’s not because it’s original but for the more humbling reason that it’s still true, no matter how much the reminder raises a rash on the love we want to lavish on True Detective.
I go home Wednesday.
I learned today Hillary died after her second lung transplant failed, that she knew she was going to die, that she got her Ph.D anyway, and a job, and that her poetry on the pain is beautiful and prosy. Her last Tweet was to Aaron the day before she died, congratulating him on his student’s grasp of gradatio. Her last retweet was Lindy West.
Bechdel’s book is full of Alice Miller. I’m afraid of Miller, I think—Bechdel presents it as a seductive explanatory weapon that could suck a person up whole. It nearly swallows her. But Are You My Mother? floats on a sea of coincidence: the spider that appeared in the office while Bechdel was narrating her mother’s fear of spiders, the plays her mother starred in that happen to be about mothers. She thematizes coincidence in a way any diary-writer (or child of a diary-writer) will recognize; it’s the most natural thing in the world to organize your days around the literary webs no one wove. (I keep resisting writing entries in my “diary” because it feels self-indulgent and wrong, and because I don’t enjoy reading it afterwards, but I recognize that I go impulsive and compulsive without it: I read threads about sociopaths for an entire day, or haunt the internet forums of waiters, or dream of dogs who are imperfect clones and speak in refined Oxbridge accents.)
One of Hillary’s poems:
Creature of occasion, remember where you have been, which leaves have teeth, which leaves are shaped like a pair of lungs. The closed landscape glitters. My name is Acutifolius: having sharp edges. Underside of each frond like a powdery line of Braille. Air stuttering with leaves. There’s a night inside the night inside my chest. Forest air cool as a plum’s dark flesh. The hand goes black against the low green. I’m Candicans: looking white or frosted. Or Sylvaticus, Californicus. In the crowded wood, I see the several eyes go down. Black air folds around low ferns. Asleep, I laid my hand on the tree until my skin turned to bark.
The air gets thin just reading her. Bronchials branch and there’s the night, closing.
I finished Bechdel’s book and stared at the ceiling. (Achy back, easier to read on floor.) It’s pouring outside. Pepi shelters from the thunder in her blue house, peers fearfully out, and my phone has just scritched eerily that there’s a flood warning in effect till 1:15 a.m. I’ve been reading Eikon Basilike today, which—coincidence—is full of storms and floods: “O Lord by thou My Pilot in this dark and dangerous storme,” writes Charles I (or his ghostwriter). He defends his decision to step away as both courageous and prudent, a function of the tides:
“Some may interpret it as an effect of Pusillanimity for any man for popular terrours to desert his publique station. But I think it a hardinesse, beyond true valour, for a wise man to set him self against the breaking in of a sea; which to resist, at present, threatens imminent danger; but ot withdraw, gives its space to spend its fury, and gaines a fitter time to repaire the breach.”
It’s not as unexpected an analogy once you realize he thinks of the people as weather: here’s his account of the Earl of Stratford, whose execution he authorized despite his loyalty, and Charles can’t get over his guilt (oh, I like him, I do):
“Whereof he could not but contract good store, while moving in so high a spheare, and with so vigorous a lustre, he must needs (as the Sun) raise many envious exhalations, which condensed by a popular odium, were capable to cast a cloud upon the brightest merit, and integrity.”
My foot stings.
I don’t like Freud, but I’ve been watching In Treatment in the off hours when the muscles start their strangle. Only the episodes where the analyst gets analyzed, I’m not interested in the others. He’s bitter and damaged and angry. It seems to be the time to think about how I stall in ways I haven’t thought to think. I’ve seen the therapist twice now. It feels like it might help. That worries me. I’m too easy a sell. I haven’t been great at striking the balance between getting lost in the luxury of self-examination and being cynical (its own kind of luxury). Useful and a little miraculous to see Paul get torn up on television.
I finally decide to look up “athlete’s foot blister” since my creams aren’t working. It turns out what I have is vesicular athlete’s foot, an allergic reaction to the fungus. Charming. That allergic response is called—it’s almost too good to be true—an id reaction. Just when I start feeling superior to Bechdel, who knits her coincidences the way I do, secretly, as if there’s a secret filmmaker or something equally absurd, BAM! a theme bubbles up in he arch of your foot.
Here’s my worry—this is Charles writing about the revolutionaries, but it resonates with something that happens in Jacqui Shine’s “The Quiet Room” and In Treatment and Are You My Mother? (All this week. Theme.)
“If some mens Hydropick insatiablenesse had not learned to thirst the more by how much more they drank; whom no fountain of Royall bounty was able to overcome; so resolved they seemed, either utterly to exhaust it, or barbarously to obstruct it.”
Therapy might lead to hydropick insatiableness. I’m afraid of the vainglorying self; God knows I have and fear and fulfill the tendency right here in one ugly jump: too fascinated with the self, everything becomes a poetic kind of self-regarding, and all I see in Charles’ analysis of the people who will cause his death is my fear of therapy.
But Hillary—who I didn’t know well, and whose departure should not be this hard to accept—was a better person, a better writer, and she benefited from it. That feels like a very, very small license. Here’s another of her poems.
The route within is familiar—
prefer circuits, only sentiment
dictates a frontier.
So there is a way-chapel
of cell gray stars, there
a nucleus of wet pebbles,
laid in moss—
twigs crossed in an arrow
must, after all, mark.
Your hand is a furrow pressing
out a darkness and in the stuttering
breath, a portal—
Nimbus cloud lung
shuddering toward the gash
of morning, remember:
pioneers slash only toward a territory
The vein is an intimate thoroughfare.
Still, nothing comes first.
The heart expands in circles:
both gather at the core—
one tearing out the bright veins,
one tending their short light.
meeting and deciding the outcome with their swords
turnus ran to the city walls through the broken ranks
(where the soil was most drenched with blood)
hearing the name of turnus, aeneas left the walls
and exultant with delight clashed her weapons fiercely
vast as old apennine
himself when he roars through the glittering holm-oaks
they both dashed quickly forward
the earth groaned
they redoubled their intense
sword-strokes, chance and skill mingled together
turnus leapt forward thinking herself safe, rose to the full height
of her body with uplifted sword, and struck
[but the attack fails; turnus’ sword breaks against aeneas’ mighty armor]
turnus ran madly this way and that over the plain, winding
aimless circles here and there
aeneas, no less, though her knees (slowed at times
by the arrow wound) failed her and denied her speed,
pursued and pressed her anxious enemy hotly, foot to foot
aeneas pressed on, brandishing her great spear like a tree,
and, angered at heart, she cried out in this way:
‘why now yet more delay? why do you still retreat, turnus?
we must compete hand to hand with fierce weapons, not by running
like a black hurricane she flew on
bearing dire destruction, and
passed through the center of the thigh
great turnus sank, her knee bent beneath her, under the blow.
She lowered her eyes in submission and stretched out her right hand:
‘I have earned this, I ask no mercy’ she said,
‘seize your chance.’
aeneas, blazing with fury, and terrible in her anger,
buried her sword deep
and then turnus’s limbs grew slack
(See a description of the #433rds project here.)
programmed to receive
Our handyman likes to call the toilet “the commode,” and it makes me happy every time he does it. He lies a lot: about when he’s coming back, about how much things cost, about being sick. (Heart attack one week, cancer another–he doesn’t do things by halves. Says he’s jaded, says he drinks 16 V8s a day.)
I’m talking in present-tense even though it’s been months since he’s visited. The bathroom is done and I miss him a little every time I look at the uneven plane of the floor.
I miss him enough, despite not liking him much, that I decided it meant I needed people. If I’m lonely—and I’m not sure that’s what this is—go to the library stacks to work around other bodies. So I did. It was perfect. Then a young man sat down at my table in a nostalgic mood. He was playing “Hotel California” on his iPhone, loud enough that I could hear its tinny strains through his headphones. By the fifth replay the air had become a Tiffany-twisted hellscape of wheedled beats.
Luckily the library’s bathroom is nicely architected. Solid, five stalls. Anteroom with a cushioned bench. Full-length mirror. Soap. Bathrooms are like fax machines in that technology should, by any reasonable definition of progress, have evolved beyond them, but nothing has replaced their almost unhackable concreteness. Their longevity is Victorian. It’s queenly. They’re better at what they do than headphones, and the few high-tech improvements we’ve attempted—circulating plastic on seats, automatic flushes, hand dryers–only mar a perfect thing. They’re singular and virtuosic, saxophones in the orchestra of rooms.
When I returned, the young man was packing his things to go. I could have stayed—the window light was beautiful, the stacks were full, some Fanny Burney letters were tempting me—but enmity is a point of connection, however marginal. We left together.