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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead to: Then and Now

Did you ever think about the unwitting ironic "tell" of Trump constantly using the words "incredible" and "unbelievable" when he's telling his biggest lies???

The following remarkable video by talented young mimic J.L. Cauvin captures, better than any other I have seen, exactly how Trump weaponizes abuse of language, in particular relying on repetition of those telltale, cringeworthy words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbPQCJtnT6o  

In this particular installment of Cauvin’s weekly podcast @TrumpPod, he savagely skewers Trump’s hypocritical, unholy mutual embrace with Far Right religious bigots. And so, henceforth, whenever Trump invades the TV screen with another installment of his cruel Covid 19 circus, I will, for instant relief, listen to other episodes of Cauvin-as-Trump.

Watching that parody also reminded me that Trump speaks like a fool or villain, or both, from a Jane Austen novel. I recalled that in October 2016, less than a month before I and most of the civilized world was shocked by the election results, I wrote a blog post I entitled “Jane in Trumpland”. My premise was that the rise of Trump had been presciently foreseen just over two centuries ago by Jane Austen, in the characters of General Tilney and John Thorpe, in Northanger Abbey:

As I reflect back with 20:20 hindsight on that 2016 post (which I invite you to read in full), written by me in the na├»ve belief that Trump would surely lose, I am not surprised that it was a literary satirist, rather than a political scientist or historian, who was a lonely Cassandra warning us all of Trump’s likely ascent to power – I am talking about one of the greatest modern satirists, Michael Moore. From Roger and Me to Fahrenheit 11/9, Moore has, like forerunners like Austen, Twain, and Swift, effectively deployed absurdity to make a satirical point about contemporary politics. So perhaps there is something in achieving mastery of satire in language that attunes one’s ear to hear when a demagogue and con man twists language for evil ends?

3 ½ years ago, when Trump had already to some extent done a hostile takeover of public media, I went into great detail as to a half dozen ways in which I saw Trump’s multifariously evil character in passages describing General Tilney, in the following categories:

ONE: An older man with an eye for young women;
TWO: A man with lots of money, who provides employment and a high standard of living to a son:
THREE: A man with lots of money who loves showing off his YUUUGE estate to young women:
FOUR: A lecherous older man with a dangerous interest in visiting, unannounced and uninvited, the bedroom of his young female houseguest in the middle of the night:         
FIVE: A late night devotee of paranoid right wing conspiracy theories about the "dangerous" "unpatriotic" countrymen who don't agree with his politics:     
SIX: A husband who did not treat his wife well: 

Eerie, isn’t it, how many of those boxes are ticked off by Trump –most relevant to my point today, instead of writing midnight letters by candlelight like the anti-Jacobin General, Trump Tweets by the light of his IPhone.

After spending most of that earlier post on the General Tilney in Trump, I gave short shrift to the John Thorpe:

“And I see the other half of Trump in John Thorpe, a man who boasts about his carriages and horses as if it would impress a young woman of taste and intelligence; a xenophobe, misogynist, anti-semite; and a sexual predator who thinks nothing of falsely imprisoning a young woman in a small space from which she cannot escape. Most Janeites can readily recall the passages in NA which illustrate each of these repellant characteristics of John Thorpe.”

Well, today I am back to remedy that gap, and present to you the particular passage in Chapter 9 of Northanger Abbey, in which, I suggest, Jane Austen predicted, with chilling accuracy, the type of abuse of language that Trump has forced on the rest of us a thousand times during his lethal Reign of Error. Be prepared for chills of recognition, as our heroine Catherine Morland is forced to listen to John Thorpe rant on and on:

“Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing; for she had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, nor to know to how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead. Her own family were plain, matter-of-fact people who seldom aimed at wit of any kind; her father, at the utmost, being contented with a pun, and her mother with a proverb; they were not in the habit therefore of telling lies to increase their importance, or of asserting at one moment what they would contradict the next.
She reflected on the affair for some time in much perplexity, and was more than once on the point of requesting from Mr. Thorpe a clearer insight into his real opinion on the subject; but she checked herself, because it appeared to her that he did not excel in giving those clearer insights, in making those things plain which he had before made ambiguous; and, joining to this, the consideration that he would not really suffer his sister and his friend to be exposed to a danger from which he might easily preserve them, she concluded at last that he must know the carriage to be in fact perfectly safe, and therefore would alarm herself no longer.
By him the whole matter seemed entirely forgotten; and all the rest of his conversation, or rather talk, began and ended with himself and his own concerns. He told her of horses which he had bought for a trifle and sold for INCREDIBLE sums; of racing matches, in which his judgment had infallibly foretold the winner; of shooting parties, in which he had killed more birds (though without having one good shot) than all his companions together; and described to her some famous day's sport, with the fox-hounds, in which his foresight and skill in directing the dogs had repaired the mistakes of the most experienced huntsman, and in which the boldness of his riding, though it had never endangered his own life for a moment, had been constantly leading others into difficulties, which he calmly concluded had broken the necks of many.
Little as Catherine was in the habit of judging for herself, and unfixed as were her general notions of what men ought to be, she could not entirely repress a doubt, while she bore with the effusions of his endless conceit, of his being altogether completely agreeable. It was a bold surmise, for he was Isabella's brother; and she had been assured by James that his manners would recommend him to all her sex; but in spite of this, the extreme weariness of his company, which crept over her before they had been out an hour, and which continued unceasingly to increase till they stopped in Pulteney Street again, induced her, in some small degree, to resist such high authority, and to distrust his powers of giving universal pleasure.

I didn’t exaggerate the uncanny parallelism, did I? It just goes from one to another, all the way through.  And in particular, did you take note of Thorpe’s boasts of selling horses (for Trump that would translate to high rise buildings, right?) “for INCREDIBLE sums”? Doesn’t it almost seem as if Donald Trump modeled his entire shtick on John Thorpe?

But of course, the correct explanation is not supernatural – it’s that there were indeed narcissistic monsters like Trump in Jane Austen’s era; and, hard-headed realist that she was (as Auden famously pointed out), she probably would not be at all surprised to see Trump if she were here with us today. Mary Crawford, Austen’s cynical alter ego in Mansfield Park, would sadly say, “Plus ca change…” and then move on to more agreeable subjects.

But I’m still not done with Chapter 9 of Northanger Abbey.  In the paragraph that immediately follows Catherine’s having to endure John Thorpe’s rant, we find that John Thorpe’s sister, Isabella, is equally enamored of absurd exaggeration and denial of commonsense reality – and watch for her regaling Catherine with not one but two “INCREDIBLES”!:

“When they arrived at Mrs. Allen's door, the astonishment of Isabella was hardly to be expressed, on finding that it was too late in the day for them to attend her friend into the house: “Past three o'clock!” It was inconceivable, INCREDIBLE, impossible! And she would neither believe her own watch, nor her brother's, nor the servant's; she would believe no assurance of it founded on reason or reality, till Morland produced his watch, and ascertained the fact; to have doubted a moment longer then would have been equally inconceivable, INCREDIBLE, and impossible; and she could only protest, over and over again, that no two hours and a half had ever gone off so swiftly before, as Catherine was called on to confirm; Catherine could not tell a falsehood even to please Isabella; but the latter was spared the misery of her friend's dissenting voice, by not waiting for her answer.
[Isabella’s] own feelings entirely engrossed her; her wretchedness was most acute on finding herself obliged to go directly home. It was ages since she had had a moment's conversation with her dearest Catherine; and, though she had such thousands of things to say to her, it appeared as if they were never to be together again; so, with smiles of most exquisite misery, and the laughing eye of utter despondency, she bade her friend adieu and went on…”

So, in conclusion, what seems truly incredible is that a woman with no formal education, writing two centuries ago, could somehow shoot her literary arrow so accurately and true, so as to land right in the bull’s eye of a bright orange target of our present day, who rivals the boundlessly narcissistic, all powerful Prince Regent of her era, who was Jane Austen’s favorite contemporary real-life satirical target.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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