‘There’s only one way off this planet and that’s through me.’
Will Smith as Agent J in Men in Black, 1997
President ‘has four years to save Earth’
Barack Obama has only four years to save the world. . .
The Guardian, January 18, 2009
Last week, the director Spike Lee — more or less forgotten by many of us since his electrifying Do the Right Thing twenty years ago — confirmed an opinion I’ve expressed about politics. This came as a shock. His political instincts are shrewd, whereas I have bet on the wrong candidate in nearly every American presidential election since I was born. (‘Reagan? – Americans would never elect a dumbkopf from Hollywood with shoe polish hair,’ for instance.)
Late last winter, when experts on the political scene said I was mad to conceive of the man taking office today as a serious candidate, I said, ‘But Obama is exactly what Americans need after seven years of a leader whose ignorance of Abroad has nearly wrecked the planet. He isn’t just American, he’s from the big world outside. . . And just imagine the effect of electing him on young black men who use having no model for getting to the top as a permanent excuse for not trying to make anything of their lives.’
“Changes the whole dynamic,” he said. “If we have a black president, maybe it will change people’s psyche.” Specifically, he meant African-Americans.
Anyone who doubts that stories influence life might want to know that I can precisely remember rewinding the video version of the space alien police thriller, Men in Black, thinking, if only a real-life equivalent of Will Smith as the fast-thinking, irreverent, sardonic and inventive Agent J were to come along. It’s a shame that I cannot think of any way to prove this, but I have the strongest suspicion that thousands of other minds were imperceptibly conditioned for the arrival of a tall, gangly, handsome, young, charismatic, technologically adept and extremely unconventional black presidential candidate by a tall, gangly, handsome, young, charismatic, technologically adept and extremely unconventional black character in a brilliantly silly comedy.
In the tests he has to pass to get his job, Agent J cocks a snook at the conventional solutions and examination etiquette. He takes a wild, maverick’s approach to proving his worth. What struck me when I saw the film was how much that was like the behaviour of the technology entrepreneurs who brought us the computer revolution – most obviously, the college dropouts Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
A question I’ve had for some time is why the creative license that came with the social upheavals since the 1960s has disproportionately encouraged important and transformative work on the science side of C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ divide. On the other side, the idea of the suffering, helpless, creatively blocked and often hopelessly substance-addicted artist or sensitive soul has been built up and accepted as stereotypical – for members of the identical generation.
For some reason, we’ve turned our backs on heroes like Charles Dickens triumphing over his appalling childhood, Anthony Trollope getting a manservant to strap him into his chair until he had met his day’s quota of words, or George Eliot stoically scribbling her way through fevers and a catalogue of biological woes that would have flattened anyone else. In the recent past, we’ve disproportionately admired people like Jack Kerouac, Janice Joplin, Kurt Cobain and David Foster Wallace, and taken them and their lives to be archetypes of the artistic temperament and lot.
Twentieth century psychology nullified the idea of a hero for intellectual and cultural trendsetters. Assorted hubristic dictator-demagogues blind to their flaws also had something to do with that. Hero-worship became vaguely disgraceful. So did heroic aspirations. We’ve saved our pedestals for irony-loving, sceptical antiheroes.
Judged by the dominant psychological model of our day, Obama — the effectively fatherless, mixed-race child of a broken home, uprooted and shuttled across oceans — would easily have been granted permission for a life spent checking in and out of detoxification centres between spells of writing. Any number of anecdotes in his wrenching and unobtrusively elegant Dreams From My Father would have a jury voting unanimously in favour of forgiving almost any weakness or lapse on his part.
In the recollection I found most heartbreaking, he’s in his early twenties and goes with his mother to see the Marcel Camus classic, Black Orpheus – after she tells him that it was the first foreign film she saw as a girl; also the most beautiful. Halfway through the screening, watching her, he suddenly understands what the mostly black actors in this retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice meant to her, ‘a white, middle-class’ Kansan.
‘[T]he reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages’ was what had drawn her, ultimately, to his Kenyan father, he thinks – ‘childlike blacks,’ and ‘the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.’ His conclusion, he says, was that ‘[w]hether we sought our demons or salvation,’ in another race, ‘it would always remain [. . .] menacing, alien, and apart.’ There is something unspeakably sad about his analysing her through the lens of her profession, anthropology, to perceive her inadvertent prejudice, and recognising that there’s an unbridgeable gap between them.
Obama’s membership of two races has given him double vision. That, and a detachment stemming from seeing qualities valued by one race undermined by the standards of the other, are part of what makes his autobiography the work of a genuinely good writer. Dreams reveals keen powers of observation and is remarkable for the fineness of its prose. You sense that if politics hadn’t stolen so much of his time, he might also have had a chance to develop a more strikingly individual style.
But there’s no doubt that he sees with a poet’s eye and feels with a poet’s heart. I think that’s clear in these extracts I’m pasting in here. The first is gently melancholy and self-mocking, an account of hubris punctured after he leads a lively meeting of community activists. The other splices fragments of tough street life into an exact evocation of a Chicago winter.
Obama’s capacity for confronting hideous truths and writing through the pain you sense that the work cost him drew strands of this site together – since it reminded me of the bravery of war poets. If genuine heroism and a widespread contempt for what William James called ‘the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success’ come into fashion, soon, it will be hard to deny him the credit for the transformation.