Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Political Landscapes

There are a lot of clichés of American politics. The best writing (Joan Didion on California) upends these the tired topographical truisms, which are as dull a feature of current political discourse as, well, the rest of it.

At a certain level, politics is aesthetic and irrational, and the terrain that plays the greatest role in shaping my own is surreal. Literally. I could write at great length about the beauty of Virginia, but I think it's senseless to try to translate the Blue Ridge or the Tidewater flats into some meaning. My psyche, on the other hand, bends time and space, and in the resulting bleak dreamscapes I think I can make out something of how I think.

Seattle is one of my favorite cities, but in my dreams it is a dark place, its streets rising ominously and its rain a bit more sinister than the real deal. I think I must be recalling a couple of moments of terror I felt in the city when, biking downhill in the rain, I realized my breaks were not working, and I had to choose between wiping out now, wiping out later (only much faster) , and hoping to make it to the uphill. Seattle is a dilemma. In my dreams it is also a frequent setting for elaborate, probably fruitless plans spun in coffeeshops. More optimistically, it can be the scene for a kind of pan-out -- I've never dreamed about the sweeping vista of Mt. Rainier, Cascades, Mt. Baker, Olympics, all looming over the Puget Sound, but I often feel the breathless sense of release I used to get in Seattle when I'd make it to some high point on a clear day, the sense that one could take in a wondrous whole.

North Carolina's Outer Banks also tend to loom in my dreams as an expanse of dooms lowering to the ocean. I have an entire genre of nightmares, each relying on my different position in this world for its particular plot twist. Sometimes I am on the top floor of a house and the ocean surrounds everything, almost peaceful if not for the implication of loneliness and devastation. Sometimes I am right where the shore meets the water when I realize I am facing a gigantic wall of water. Sometimes I am father away, trying to rescue something. Various people have told me the best way to handle the fear in such dreams would be to enter the water, but this has only happened once: in my one view of a benevolent ocean, I could breathe underwater and play with friends as the wave rushed overhead, and the feeling was half jacuzzi, half surfing.

I want a politics of optimism. I want not to be ruled by fear. How I get from these fairly raw emotions to particular policies is, of course, always chancy, and often my reactions are prior to any sort of reasoning whatsoever. Tell me we are caught in a great wave of history, and I will recoil. Tell me to shoot at something, and I will assume it has as much effect as shooting at a tsunami. Tell me to overcome my own anxieties and limitations, to leap in or rise up, and I am likely to sign on. But mostly I would love to see again a politics that accepts how surreal at root so much politics is.


Keifus said...

I could write at great length about the beauty of Virginia, but I think it's senseless to try to translate the Blue Ridge or the Tidewater flats into some meaning...

Obviously you mean political meaning, although I think it's often used as a homer shorthand. Lots of people write to communicate natural beauty, but I think that part of the problem there is that most locales will have equivalent (similar in kind if not in merit) opinions about where they live. Or maybe that's not it. Politics only goes so far with appreciating natural beauty, a lot of other times the landscape gets in the way of political interests.

As for the politics of fear, my issue is that servers of opinions tap into irrational fears (swarthy aliens, the sixties, some disapproved Other might be getting something you're not) rather than things that are of real concern (often things that we, or they, are doing to fuck up the community and should stop doing) or could unprofitably do to actually make things better for more people.

But on the other hand, no politics is going to adjust very well to a role of merely administering the rules of a sustainable status quo. If there were no enemies, we'd have to dream some up.

As for dreams, I'll politely have to ask you to get out of my head. I've been thinking more often lately the way that the landscapes of my free-floating mind have diverged from their original physical counterparts, weirdly, in ways that I am cognizant of when I dream them. Some of these nighttime sets have been with me since I was a child, and have grown from their original impressions without the switch of perspective that my adult mind demands has happened (the end of my road is still a great savannah, but they've built some developments on it; my grandmother's house still has a vast primeval forest lurking behind it and corrupting things, and my grandfather's garage is expanding and turning up new artifacts--secret rooms, apparently in recent use--which freaks me out because even asleep I realize he's been dead for 20 years). Interesting to me, but after all, it's my head.

august said...

I guess, if pressed, I'd say the landscape is the stuff of emotion, and a good politician can work from emotion. I just think that once an emotion get's tied to a landscape in a public way, when it escapes the personal and becomes just a label, like an advertising slogan ("Virginia is for Lovers"), then you are no longer in the realm of real emotion at all. But perhaps that's what brings us to politics.

I was thinking, in a "five thoughts" sort of way, that a lot of politics, fear, etc. depends on whether or you think the government we have is the product of our collective endeavors. Fear then is one way of defining a collective. Maybe landscape is another, but I don't think it works as well (and that's good).

Thought #3 or so would be a digression about U2's Joshua Tree album, and Wim Wender's Wings of Desire, both of which were roughly contemporaneous attempts to evoke a sense of a particular landscape/cityscape in unusual ways.

It is weird how childhood impressions stick around and become something like leitmotivs. In addition to tidal waves, I have recurring dreams about trying to get there from here via public transport. I'm sure this started with the incredible awe in which I held the D.C. Metro, which was near my grandparent's house and which seemed to me the original web, the thing that got important people to real places and that later would carry me to the Smithsonian for some formative imaginings. But subsequent experience, in DC and elsewhere (Amtrak I think is a particular villain, although it has not yet explicitly come up in a dream) makes my dreamtrains Kafkaesque mazes in which I am trying to get somewhere important, but wind up confused and perhaps lost. I'd say it was a metaphor for the aging process, except that I think it is the aging process.

Keifus said...

whether or you think the government we have is the product of our collective endeavors

That's an interesting question. I'd think it has to be, by definition, but I'd also argue that it's more like a heavily weighted sum. And let's integrate over time too, and get that correctly in the governing dynamics. The collective fruits of our efforts appear to have a lot of inertia; they depend highly on whatever brought us here.