Thank God Joyce Wasn’t In Charge of Things

…because then we would have to hate him. James Joyce was a brilliant mind, but could you imagine voting for the man? It is a silly question, really. Writers do not tend to make good administrators in the first place. Their interior worlds swallow most of their time, leaving little patience for the actual living. (I am reminded of a line from the New Yorker piece on Oscar-winning scriptwriter and director Paul Haggis. His daughter said of him, “He’s emotionally not there… That’s funny, because his scripts are full of emotion.”)

But consider, for example, someone who is both a talented writer and a charismatic, and capable, political leader. Would such a person’s writing reputation suffer as a result?

It is a perverse and pervasive fact that only our powerless literary titans tend to draw hagiographic praise. Writers always clamor for reforms and revolution, but if they ever found themselves in a position of authority, would we be as quick to celebrate them? It isn’t really a rhetorical question. The answer is no, many of us would not like them at all.

Consider the lately deceased Czech icon Václav Havel, who is perhaps the most recent incarnation of the philosopher king.

Havel was one of the leaders of the famous Velvet Revolution that freed Czechoslovakia of Soviet rule in 1989.  He went on to be the Czech Republic’s first president. He was also an admired playwright. Havel, quite naturally for a writer, loved the nuance of language, how its subtleties mimic the mercurial nature of the people who use it. He published a play in 1966, at the height of Communist power, called “The Memorandum,” which mocked the Soviet obsession with simplifying language to make words more efficient at communicating core ideas. Havel appreciated that language, like humanity, was hard to pin down.  Ambiguity is an inherent aspect of both language and life.

But can one divorce an appreciation for Mr. Havel the author from President Havel the politician? Consider this line from his obituary in the Economist:

He disliked the arms industry, and tried to block some important deals. But making weapons was a big source of jobs in Slovakia, long the poorer part of the country, where many felt Mr Havel had a tin ear for their concerns.

A perfect example of reasonable positions facing cold reality. It is hard to find fans of the illicit gunrunning industry. Harder still to put folks out of work in impoverished parts of the country. A political leader needs to make thousands of unpopular decisions, many of which result in people losing their jobs or lives. There is an inherent interest in hating those in charge, and therefore, hating everything about them. Would we admire J.D. Salinger or Ernest Hemingway less if they were responsible for ruining other lives besides their own (and close loved ones)? And they were troubled souls; look how we regard our leaders who are not self-destructive misanthropes (hold your tongue, my dear political trolls).

In the US, a 1982 popular ranking of presidents found Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon at the bottom, in the company of such unmitigated disasters as Warren Harding, and Civil War era do-nothings like Pierce and Buchanan. In 1999, a similar poll found Bill Clinton fifth from the bottom, again in company with the likes of Harding and Pierce. Nixon and Carter, meanwhile, had risen in esteem, ranking 20th and 27th respectively. Reagan and Bush Sr. have seen more modest improvements in their reputation over time, starting poorer and getting better with the years. Fast forward to 2006, and Quinnipiac University asks “Who is the worst president since WWII?” The predominant choice? George W. Bush.

So, now that there is a new president that has replaced George W. Bush in the Oval Office, is he a hero or a zero? History is not on his side.

Because a leader comes to represent the general culture of his era, he is ranked as more than a person, he is critiqued as the era itself is critiqued. If those were bad years, the man himself is bad. At least in the short-term. (I imagine Lincoln was not much loved in 1865 by the former Confederate states.) That, I think, is perhaps why the person least trusted to account for a president’s attitudes is the man himself; at least not by his words. To quote Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph,  “If you seek his monument – look around you.”

A writer who has no role of leadership has the luxury of delving into the mires of emotion, invoking very startling (and very honest) portrayals of humanity. Could you imagine a politician creating the characters in Under the Volcano or Naked Lunch?  When politicians do put pen to paper, it is almost always autobiography with intentions of political gain (see here and here for two local examples). Rarely do they risk conveying real emotion, taking real risks. Why take a risk when you have to appeal to such a wide audience, be the everyman?

As for Joyce, if he were ever to run for office it would have to be under a pseudonym. Here comes H.C.E. 

One Response to “Thank God Joyce Wasn’t In Charge of Things”
  1. Yesterday, Big Think‘s Peter Lawler extolled the virtues of political theorist John Tomasi’s new book, Free Market Fairness . Tomasi’s project is to massage away any underlying tension he sees between the twin virtues of social justice and individual (specifically economic) liberty. Regular readers of the blog know that I have a particular interest in theories that can accommodate both notions of fairness and notions of individual liberty — it’s one of the primary reasons I’m such a big proponent of republicanism. A satisfying libertarian-leaning treatment of some of the same issues would be a great boon to the, uh, marketplace of ideas.

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