History of liberalism

Lib Lit Poster 2Sean McCann “‘Down to the people’: Pynchon and Schlesinger ‘after the imperial presidency’”

Ever wonder what might happen if novels could be presidents? Sean McCann wants us to – or at least to consider how novelistic form and argument might resonate with resilient fantasies about executive political office in the United States. McCann’s analysis pivots around Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 coruscation of fascist imperialism in its international but also pointedly American incarnations. McCann begins by noting a “relatively obvious” yet “rarely noted” aspect of the novel: that it “is organized by its evident disappointment in presidential leadership” – a disappointment signaled or indeed epitomized by the figure of Richard Nixon. Such disappointment, we see, textures political culture in modern America more generally, where expansive desire for presidential leadership and intensive dismay at the failure of that leadership have tended to pulse together. McCann reads Gravity’s Rainbow alongside Arthur Schlesinger, Jr’s The Imperial Presidency (from the same year) in order to track the intimate if also dissonant ways these two texts reckon the dangers of presidential power in the tendencies of the imperial ‘warfare state.’ The genealogies of New Frontier liberalism and New Left radicalism loom large in McCann’s account – antagonistic movements nonetheless conjoined, as McCann shows, by a shared sense of “the constraints of bureaucratic government and the revitalizing potential of charismatic leadership.” What makes Gravity’s Rainbow so striking in this context is not just its withering view of the “inevitable mutual corruption” of leaders alongside bureaucracies, but also, and more so, its “rhetorical or therapeutic ambitions toward its readers.” Thus for McCann the novel constitutes aesthetic artifact as executive agent: “Pynchon casts his novel in something much like the role of charismatic leader invoked by New Frontier liberals and New Leftists alike, ” precisely so as “to exhort us all to develop the admirable capacities of leaders.”

Led by the novels we read? Given the state of executive power in so many places today, we could do – because we have done – much worse.

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