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Sunday, June 28, 2015

“A strange business this in America…”: Obama’s amazingly graceful (and Austenian) eulogy



What a short strange trip the last ten days have been in America. Facebook and Twitter have been flooded with blue-state blue-sky renewed optimism, as insightful commentators have been quick to observe, including this brilliant piece by Michael Cohen which succinctly touches all the important bases:

I start from where Cohen leaves off---as my Subject Line suggests, I will add my own literary gloss on Obama’s eulogy delivered in Charleston on Friday... http://tinyurl.com/nfef7h3  ...the amazing grace of which I hope and believe will be long remembered, in part because of the verbal virtuosity of his sermon. As @RoofBeamReader put it: "I've taught rhetoric for years & have heard many beautiful speeches from all ages & places. President Obama's eulogy today was transcendent."

Given my Austen obsession, I was repeatedly struck, as I listened to the President, by the remarkably Austenian deployment of irony and implication in the President’s eulogy, and so I immediately went to a transcript to try to identify what it was that reminded me so much of Jane Austen’s writing genius. And I think I found it—see what you think.

Jane Austen, in her euphoria upon the successful publication of Pride & Prejudice in January, 1813, famously wrote the following about her “darling child” to her sister about a supposed flaw in her writing detected by some of the novel’s first readers:   "There are a few Typical errors – & a “said he” or a “said she” would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear – but “I do not write for such dull Elves” “As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.”

I’ve frequently observed that this was a massively ironic MOCK self-deprecation on her part. What Austen was saying, in her topsy-turvy irony, was that she expected her best readers to be sharp elves, who would understand that her frequent ambiguities in pronoun usage in P&P were not errors at all, but instead intentionally designed, so as to create pervasive ambiguity of reference. In this way, along with a number of other literary techniques I collectively call “The Jane Austen Code”, I’ve argued that she allowed for a flexible, alert reader to discern two entirely alternative fictional realities in the same novel—so Austen could write novels which appear conservative on the surface, but are radically subversive beneath.

Well, in his eulogy, I see Barack Obama doing his own version of that---if you read through the transcript of his eulogy here….
…pay close attention to how skillfully he moves back and forth in his references to “we” and “us”. That will be the thrust of my analysis today.

When he says, “No wonder one of his senate colleagues remembered Senator Pinckney as "the most gentle of the 46 of US -- the best of the 46 of US." “, he refers to the elected representatives of South Carolina.  But then note how the reference shift when Pres. Obama says, “As OUR brothers and sisters in the AME church know, WE don't make those distinctions. ‘OUR calling, ’Clem once said, ‘is not just within the walls of the congregation, but...the life and community in which OUR congregation resides.’ He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words…”

Now, “our” and  “we” literally refers to the congregation at AME, and yet, the President knows very well that he’s speaking not just to the live audience packed into the church, but also to tens or even hundreds of millions of people worldwide who will eventually watch it during the weeks and months that follow, because of the huge buzz that he knows he’s going to create with this eulogy. So “our” and “we” also refers to all of US in America, and all around the world, anyone who pays attention to what happens here.

And so when he then says, “…that to put OUR faith in action is more than individual salvation, it's about OUR collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society….”, it is now “us”, all of us in our large and diverse society, he is now speaking for.

And that’s precisely when Obama shifts to the second person pronoun, as he speaks about the martyred Revd. Pinckney. “What a good man. Sometimes I think that's the best thing to hope for when YOU'RE eulogized -- after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say someone was a good man.” Subtly, now the President is speaking out of two sides of his mouth, and both sides are producing good righteous words. He is describing the good man who was murdered, but he’s also implicitly prompting everyone listening who has a heart and a soul to imagine the moment in the future when we each will OURSELVES be eulogized, and to wonder whether we will also be called a “good” man or woman. 

And then the President zeroes in on his listeners once again: “YOU don't have to be of high station to be a good man….What a life Clementa Pinckney lived. What an example HE set. What a model for HIS faith. And then to lose HIM at 41…” The example set by Clementa Pinckney in life, is, in death, amplified a millionfold by the bully pulpit at which only an American president with the ear of the world can stand.

It happens, by the way, that the world also lost Jane Austen at 41, nearly two centuries ago—a woman who, in writing of six novels filled with characters of startling psychological and emotional reality, set an example the world is still following, as those novels have now been read by tens of millions of readers in every country of the world. So that, physical death need not be the end of a good person’s good example, it may actually be only the beginning of it.

And so when the President then says, “To the families of the fallen, the nation shares in YOUR grief. OUR pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church. The church is and always has been the center of African-American life -- (applause) -- a place to call OUR own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships. “, he now his rhetorical cake, and eats it, too. When he goes on to describe the numerous vital roles that the African-American church has played in the survival of black people through centuries of unspeakable horror at the hands of their white countrymen, he doesn’t say “you” to the white Americans listening—especially those who have defended flying the Confederate flag on statehouses---he says, “our nation”. He challenges them to try to reconcile this irreconcilable contradiction.

At no point does Obama ever mention the role of the white church in the South, and yet, as so often the case in Austen’s writing, something can be so strongly implied that it need not ever be made explicit. In fact, the meaning—the challenge--takes on extra weight because it is never stated. No defensiveness is provoked by the word “you”, and yet, it is there in the shadow of every word spoken.

This unspoken contrast reminds all of us of the Far Right’s constant attempts to impose the ideology of their perversely anti-Christian “Christianity” on all of the rest of us. Most of all, Obama makes us think on our own about the centuries’ long tradition of the white Christian churches justifying the unspeakable horrors of slavery—not just justifying it, but (via the treating of the Confederate flag as if it were a holy relic, like the Shroud of Turin)  celebrating it.

And now listen to the President deliver his subtle punch line via his pronouns:

“WE may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other -- but WE got it all the same. He gave it to US anyway. He's once more given US grace. But it is up to US now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove OURSELVES worthy of this gift.
For too long, WE were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of OUR citizens. It's true, a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge -- including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise -- as WE all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. WE see that NOW.”

The truth is that all black Americans (except maybe Clarence Thomas) have never been blind to that pain, nor have many white Americans—but the President is addressing the better part of those of “us” who have been blind, but who self-identify as “good people”. His inclusive “us” gives them a door to walk through —with Governor Haley as a subtly ironic example of the blind being politically maneuvered into into leading the other blind folk out of blindness--- and that, we hope, will lead to a collective doing good.

I could go on, but I hope that the above sampler will encourage you to go through the President’s speech on your own with this in mind. Test his rhetoric, and I promise you, you will emerge with an even greater respect for his skill in delivering so perfectly the message that our country so desperately needs to hear.

What I’d like to do in the remainder of this post, is to draw one more parallel between the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, and Jane Austen’s most overtly religious novel, Mansfield Park, published in 1814.
For those not familiar with Jane Austen’s writing, my Subject Line is derived from the following words spoken by the soul-deadened but subversive heir to a slavery fortune, Tom Bertram, in Mansfield Park, to the self-satisfied, gluttonous clergyman Dr. Grant:    "A strange business this in America, Dr. Grant! What is your opinion? I always come to you to know what I am to think of public matters."

Austen scholars have long debated whether this dialog, published in 1814, was meant to refer to the War of 1812, or to the recent banning of the slave trade supplying that terrible human cargo to the English Caribbean colonies, or to some other large-scale event. Whatever she meant, we certainly know what the President was talking about on Friday. But I find an uncanny parallelism between the way President Obama quietly and subtly exposed the hypocrisies and banal evil of the residue of white racism in the United States two centuries after those words were written by Jane Austen, and the way that she quietly but powerfully dissected and shredded the hypocrisy of the English colonial slavery system.  Sir Thomas Bertram, the patriarch of the novel, is never overtly called a hypocrite, a moral monster, or a greedy sexually abusive oppressive father and slaveowner-and yet I and many other Janeites, including Patricia Rozema, writer and director of the controversial 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park, read between the lines, and see Jane Austen condemning Sir Thomas.

As a woman writing novels in the super-sexist England she lived her whole life in, Jane Austen rode a knife’s edge of subtle irony, so she couldn’t just say what she meant. And in a way, sadly, so does President Obama, even today in 2015. Indeed, he has since the day he rose into public fame over a decade ago, and still as the first black man (because in America, biracial is still “black” for many) sitting in the Oval Office of the till-then universally aptly named White House, he has had to live with the impossible Catch 22 of saying enough about race to try to make things better, while facing the constant threat of being accused of playing “the race card” every time he does speak forcefully. So, if he plays a subtle rhetorical games “we”, “us”, and “you”, it is perfectly understandable that he has to do so.

I will conclude by invoking a final example of Austenian genius, the debate between the earnest, pious Fanny Price and the worldly-wise Mary Crawford on the subject of sermonizing and its effect on those speaking and hearing it.  

Fanny argues that “[a] man—a sensible man like Dr. Grant, cannot be in the habit of teaching others their duty every week, cannot go to church twice every Sunday, and preach such very good sermons in so good a manner as he does, without being the better for it himself. It must make him think; and I have no doubt that he oftener endeavours to restrain himself than he would if he had been anything but a clergyman."

To which Mary wittily and tellingly replies, "We cannot prove to the contrary, to be sure; but I wish you a better fate, Miss Price, than to be the wife of a man whose amiableness depends upon his own sermons; for though he may preach himself into a good-humour every Sunday, it will be bad enough to have him quarrelling about green geese from Monday morning till Saturday night."

At which point Edmund (whom Fanny secretly loves, but who is strongly attracted to Mary) avoids directly rebutting Mary, but instead takes a page out of Jesus’s “Render unto Caesar” playbook, and also makes Fanny’s heart leap, with this touching and brilliant bit of wit:

"I think the man who could often quarrel with Fanny," said Edmund affectionately, "must be beyond the reach of any sermons."
Fanny turned farther into the window…”

I think that the American who could often quarrel with President Obama about the stirring message he delivered to all of us on Friday must also be beyond the reach of any sermons…..but I hope there are more of US in the U.S. who are not beyond the reach of the amazingly graceful amazing grace of President Obama’s eulogy to Clementa Pinckney. R.I.P.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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