Forcing the Words

The closer it gets to election day, the harder it becomes to have any sense of emotional distance from it — after awhile, we all become full-on cheerleaders for our side, it’s a natural reaction. This year, the phenomenon is particularly acute and it really started to shift into hyperdrive last week after the debate and as Donald Trump made public his COVID-19 infection.

It’s impossible to write in a long-form coherent manner about the President’s state of mind. The movie “The Madness of King George” comes to mind. Otherwise, you might as well just hang out on Twitter and let the pieces of insanity just roll over you. Trump’s polls look dismal right now — even the most Trump friendly pollster — Rasmussen Reports — has him down 12 points. Biden has pulled even with Trump in the two most recent Texas polls and has pulled ahead in Ohio and Iowa. It’s looking like a blowout.

And yet, there’s an air of disbelief about it all, like we’ve seen this movie once before and if a guy can actually survive that Access Hollywood tape, what can’t he survive? To some degree, that’s healthy — just keep acting as if the race is a coin toss and you’ll keep working hard to defeat him. But there’s another edge to this that isn’t about the actual votes.

There’s a sense that Trump will take extraordinary legal steps to try to steal the vote and if that fails, he’ll just send his thugs out into the streets to start a civil war. I think the public has processed these risks so completely that we’d no longer be surprised by them. Is that a good thing? Maybe on an individual emotional level, but not for a nation, I believe. We need to be shocked by such actions, not be emotionally ready to accept them.

This returns me to one of Montaigne’s earliest essays, his second essay entitled “On Sadness,” where he tips his hand for the first time that he’s in mourning over the death of his friend Etienne de la Boetie. Because it’s a very early Montaigne essay, he’s reluctant to delve into the subject and instead deflects by writing about how impossible it is to express our deepest emotions. And he pretends that he’s a stranger to sadness:

I am among those who are most free from this emotion; I neither like it nor think well of it, even though the world, by common consent, has decided to honor it with special favor. Wisdom is decked out in it; so are Virtue and Conscience — a daft and monstrous adornment.

I have the exact opposite reaction to Montaigne — I am bothered when people actively deny their sadness, or any emotion that has overcome them for that matter. As a country right now, we want to express how exasperated, confused and worried we are that Trump is President and has any kind of chance of retaining that power. But it’s exhausting to keep hearing about it, I get that. It makes some people just want to put it aside.

About halfway through Montaigne’s essay, he starts to let on that he’s not expressing his sadness right now, not because he’s free of it, but because he’s overwhelmed by it. A sonnet from Petrarch is quoted:

He who can describe how his heart is ablaze is burning on a small pyre.

And Montaigne then explains how moments of deepest feeling sap us of our ability to fully, honestly express them:

We cannot display our grief or our convictions during the living searing heat of the attack; the soul is then burdened by deep thought and the body is cast down, languishing for love.

But it’s interesting to me that Montaigne threw himself into this project knowing that he had to write to somehow deal with the death of his friend, even if he couldn’t find the words — even if he didn’t know his purpose. The activity propelled him forward and he basically invented the great modern platitude “fake it until you make it.” He drives this home with a quote from Seneca:

Light cares can talk: huge ones are struck dumb.

I returned to this project shortly after the COVID-19 lockdown began because I had huge cares gnawing at me and no one in particular to whom I could express them. I decided to not care that no one would answer me and, with fits and starts, addressed those cares in a sometimes very personal manner. Often, I was self critical in those moments and would go back and read my expressions with unkind eyes, editing or deleting them entirely.

I should have paid closer attention to Montaigne’s early project days at that time, because they are instructive. I was too close to everything to write about it with genuine insight. But even the fact that I tried is something I should be proud of — it’s nearly impossible to get such things right.

As I recovered from my emotional shock throughout the year, I started to find new ways to write about my experience and started to put it into perspective, but that too brought risks — namely, why was I still interested in the subject at all? Why am I, months later, expressing these emotions with clarity? Again, some self care was in order — I expressed them at that time because I was finally capable of doing so.

Now I’m in a position where I could probably go back and tell the entire story with my greatest clarity and understanding yet. Except now, I don’t care about the subject at all, the thought of returning to it bores me, as are the people involved in the drama.

I suspect at some point I will be able to discuss the 2020 election with great dispassionate depth as well, But will I care anymore? To some extent, maybe, but at this level of interest? I hope not. I hope Trump is soon gone and politics becomes boring for us all again. Maybe someday soon we can get back to disagreeing about things without thinking our entire world is on the line.