At a recent dinner with some of my Marquette undergraduate students, I had the opportunity to ask them how they and their peers on campus had responded to the election of Donald Trump. Reports were mixed, from accounts of floor-wide jubilation in the dorms, to professors and students crying together in class. My group’s reaction ranged from concern to outrage to malaise. One student consoled a friend by suggesting that nothing would really change; the last three decades had charted a firm course of progress from which no return was possible. To the contrary, I wondered aloud, might his generation (and mine) be inclined to think of history as unidirectional because of a kind of experiential deficit? We have read about history, but have had little personal experience with events that turn out to be historic (the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, Vietnam). But changes do come, I warned, and not always for the better. In short, welcome to being in history.
I remember vividly the sense that my generation had entered history in 2001, when groups of students flocked to campus television sets to watch two burning towers in New York crumble to the ground in billows of smoke. Time has yet to reveal how significant the attacks of September 11 will be on the landscape of early 21st century history (as the Chinese are wont to say: “too soon to tell”); but from a phenomenological standpoint, one “felt” the presence of a moment in history, even if only as a signifier of some larger phenomena (the rise of Islamic militancy, the war on terror, etc.).
“Being in history” is literally an impossibility, or at least an oxymoron. Ordinary humans can only really be in the present. But there are moments when we sense the historic, however uncertainly — a good reminder that each of us is, as Tolkien once put it, a character in a very great story, one with a real history and a real future, and whose ultimate scope is known only to the mind of the Maker.
All time-bound attempts to see beyond the horizon into the larger plot mechanics in which our lives unfold are usually doomed to failure (“no one knows the time, not even the Son”). As Qohelet laments: “He has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccl. 3:11). There is a measure of hubris and naiveté in the human attempt to shore up one’s position on “the right side of history.” Nevertheless, it is only natural in times like ours to try to process what has happened as best we can — to “make sense of it,” for the sake of prayer and discernment. As I confessed to some of my friends in the wake of the shock of this November’s elections (how many of us said this could never happen), the best I could do was to try my hand at political cartoon therapy.
So I produced this.
Now, I will be the first to admit that the cartoon, which takes as its mythic subtext the famous story of “the fall of Icarus,” is far from perfect in its correspondences. The few that I have shared it with have generally chuckled, some have been confused, still others have claimed that it is inaccurate, and perhaps a few have found it genuinely helpful. I offer it here as an exempli gratia exercise in “sense-making” that draws on the resources of mythic parables, and the best modern commentary on our current moment known to me: that of David Brooks and Mark Shields. It is, at best, a kind of placeholder for where it seems to me we are in history, as limited as this must necessarily be. Let’s call it “The Fall of Icara.”
A brief recap, for those who haven’t read their Ovid or their Edith Hamilton recently. There was once a King of Crete named Minos. A vengeful tyrant and the enemy of democratic Athens, he demanded every nine years a tribute of seven young men and maidens to be fed to his Minotaur, which he kept in a labyrinth. Athens was forced to pay this tribute until at last the hero Theseus came, and with the help of Minos’s daughter Ariadne, slew the Minotaur and ended Minos’s tyranny.
The labyrinth is perhaps one of the most intriguing parts of this story, and has a history in its own right. According to Ovid, the labyrinth was built by Daedalus, the most famous artificer of antiquity. He used all of his ingenuity to craft this labyrinth, such that even he was hardly able to get out of it. Having built the labyrinth, Daedalus then constructed wings made of wax and feathers, so that he and his child Icarus could escape from Minos. The wings worked — an act of technical prowess — and Daedalus managed to fly with them. But his son Icarus ascended too close to the sun; the wax melted and he plummeted into the Aegean.
My mind was turned to this story, I think, primarily by a particular “fit” between our present situation and the story of Daedalus and Icarus. In Daedalus, on the one hand, was a technocrat par excellence — as many have described President Obama. Daedalus has long been a favorite figure for the modern scientific craftsman of what T.S. Eliot called “systems so perfect that no one will have to be good.” One thinks of James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus, Henry Adams’s Henry Adams, and Max Frisch’s Homo faber.
Trailing this Daedalus Obama (and falling from her electoral sky) is the onetime member of his cabinet and presumed ascendant, the ill-fated Icara, Clinton. The pollsters’ “science” suggested that nothing could have foiled the flight of these two — but nature has her own ways of checking human machinations and attempts to predict the future, noble as they might seem at times. The myth of Daedalus and Icarus illustrates the root cause Brooks and Shields saw underpinning Trump’s surprise victory in November: that the promises of cities, technocracy, and globalization, along with the prophecies of the pollsters and the realized eschatologies of liberal self-fabricating elites, had somehow failed to impress Mother Nature and all manner of her children.
These first two casting decisions led inevitably to a third: Trump as Minos. Admittedly, I’ve fused him here a bit in the picture (cobbled together from clip art on Nov. 8) with King Midas of gold-lusting fame, but even stripped of this, Minos the tyrant-opponent of Athenian democracy seemed fitting enough, given how frequently Plato’s description of the precarious proximity of democracy and tyranny had surfaced in the media hype. The interesting thing, if one extends the Obama-Clinton allegory, is that we get the portrait of a Trump-Minos who has inherited a technocratic empire so powerful that even its own fabricators did not understand it. That no party adequately understands the labyrinthine complexity of our moral and political situation in America at the moment (America, it would seem, is both Athens and Crete) is the lesson I took from my foray into mythic allegoresis.
You get the picture. I’ll leave it to readers to decide how one might cast Ariadne and the Minotaur — the death-dealing monster at the center of our American labyrinth, who must, like the Demogorgon in Netflix’s Stranger Things, be fed constantly. (Of course, there’s no “right” answer — that’s why myth is so good to think with.) The hopeful part of me likes to think that somewhere on the horizon— perhaps in the smallest of ships — sails Theseus, and the return of a Catholic heroic culture that he brings in tow.
Left to its own devices, however, this cartoon and the underlying myth are not much more than a wisdom literature, a parable of the bramble and the trees in the time of the Judges, “when everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” It offers, above all, a description of our being in history. But if we wish to know how we ought to live faithfully in history (if we would ask “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?”) the answer will require that we learn again the language of the Psalms and the Prophets.
It is here, not in the myths of Ovid or Edith Hamilton, that one finds the living longing for the Messiah — the inevitably particular and political Lord of faith and our earnest desire this Advent season. What I told my students, and what I tell myself, is that to be faithfully in this time as a Christian requires a full immersion in the thick language of Scripture as a foreign language. This is the tongue that the Spirit requires. Here, we find the laughing God of Israel, the God who holds all nations in derision, and the Lord who shepherds his faithful even in the shadow of death.
Here alone, the Spirit teaches us to speak clearly: “O Come, Desire of the Nations.”