Books

Off the Shelf: Was It Always Clown World?

Fishing on Rangeley Lake, Maine, in 2005. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
There’s good reason to think we are no longer producing things that centuries hence will give the illusion of glory and fixity.

Editor’s Note: Every week, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes an “Off the Shelf” column sharing casual observations on the books he’s reading and the passing scene.

I  woke up at 3:57 a.m. on Thursday, three minutes before the alarm was supposed to wake me. I woke my wife up. We finished putting the last items in the car, mostly the electronic stuff and the food. Then we carefully pulled our two sleeping children out of bed, walked down the hall, took the elevator to the basement, and slipped them into their car seats, hoping that we could make as much distance as possible while they still slept. As we got on I-84, my wife punched in an order for coffee on her iPhone. We were the first customers of the day when we arrived at the drive-thru in Danbury. We had a stop in a park in Massachusetts for breakfast and sliding. Then another in Biddeford, Maine, because the children were by that point staging their version of a prison riot over their long and unjust confinement.

But after they had their french fries, followed by a little silence induced by tablets — don’t judge us — we arrived in Waldoboro to see my uncle in his usual summer cottage on Damariscotta Lake. He met my son for the first time, and shortly thereafter took me and my daughter on a tour of the lake as it is today, more surrounded by vacation homes than ever. He pointed to one patch of land for sale, about 89 acres, well under $100,000. And in the hours since, I have daydreamed about what could be done with it.

He informed us of his latest catches and injuries. Eleven perch the night before. A bass recently resisted him and his pliers during the de-hooking ministrations. Understandable from the perspective of the bass, but it did neither party any good. The bass was delayed from getting back into the lake, and the hook was sunk into my uncle’s hand. A short hospital trip and all was patched up, he explained. He took us to the north end of the lake, in Jefferson, Maine, where his household and mine used to stay when I was a kid. My cousin and I would spend half the day playing on a little beach, swimming out a ways, getting grossed out by the seaweed, and occasionally pulling off the leeches that would get on you if you ventured into the clay. At night we’d read from stacks of vacation books or play cribbage.

My daughter was just getting her sea legs when we docked, reunited with our wives and my son, then ventured out for ice cream. I learned that Giffords Ice Cream, which had started as a small stand in Skowhegan, had conquered tongues and hearts in the region, crowding out the temple of my childhood summers, Round Top Ice Cream in Damariscotta. Giffords now has such a regional following that the Boston Bruins made it their official desert. We left my uncle’s place and finally arrived at our own weekend retreat in Cushing, Maine. As I write on the porch, the kids are collecting smooth stones on the lip of Muscongus Bay, while one lobsterman makes circles around the bay, checking on his traps. He’s being hotly pursued by about a dozen or so gulls.

We live in a world where the words ‘Space Force’ seem to be understood as an ironical Boomer in-joke about the lowered expectations for our civilization.

We’re not near it this time, but one of my last trips to Maine included a stop at Moosehead Lake, an enormous mountain lake that seems like it should become a booming tourist spot with its own busy private airport. But it definitely is not that. Moose outnumber humans three to one. We hired a pontoon plane that gave us a tour of that much larger lake and a few overhead look-ins on the local moose. He told us about Seboomook, a World War II POW camp where captured Germans were put to work during the war. It’s the subject of much local lore and not much real scholarship. Around Greenville, you’ll hear that the Germans loved being in the camp, as they were feasting on moose meat and blueberry pies, while the guards hated being assigned to the middle of nowhere and eating standard rations. Somehow, I doubt this is the whole story. We just know Germans were brought back to do jobs that had been left behind by Americans serving in the war. Some of those jobs could be pretty dangerous even if you knew the trade. Were they selecting for rustics? How much moose meat must a Berliner eat before he is a competent logger? I wonder.

I’ve been reading essays by Jacques Barzun this week. And they are a useful remedy to my personality and my politics. Here’s a passage from a 1950s essay, “Swift, or the Capacity for Reason”:

When in our weariness we look back to the great ages shining in history by their art, science, and the merged glory of worthy lives and deeds, we long for their clear outlines and envy their unchallengeable merit. They seem both the product and the evidence of order, of reason; particularly so if Reason was one of their slogans and historians have turned the word into a descriptive tag. Actually, no generation of men has set out to be unreasonable. And if the Age of Reason, the age of classicism, the age of order, hierarchy, and monarchy looks to us like a haven for our distraught selves, it is only another mirage induced by distance and desire.

There is something restful about what cannot be changed, and obviously Queen Anne is immovable. Versailles, Racine, Milton, Dryden, Molière, Pope, Louis XIV, Newton, Lock are — as we say — “fixed values,” whereas our own are in doubt and in flux. But this fixity is something which we enjoy, not they. They were in the same flux and perhaps at a greater disadvantage toward it than we to ours.

Barzun comes around in this essay to protesting the gift that Swift gives us, of knowing the constancy of the West. For, Barzun writes:

at what moment during the past two hundred years, would it have been false to say that the “account of our affairs during the last century is only a Heap of Conspiracies, Rebellions, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments, the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, or Ambition could produce”?

It is good for me to mediate on this here in Maine. Because in Maine it often seems to me that I’m stealing pleasure from a world that is fundamentally changing, somehow. Maine is like a little preview of the future. We should have seen Trump coming after the arrival of Governor Paul LePage. It’s a place where people are getting older, and where there hardly are any younger people. If present trends hold, Maine should start to sink in population soon, as its high concentration of Boomers promises a death rate that exceeds the birth rate. Some of the state’s small cities are becoming hipper. But there are reasons to doubt Bath can become the next Portland, Oregon. Not even Portland, Maine, is the next Portland, Oregon. That’s what I fear the future is, a little rumor that somewhere once dead is getting slightly hipper, a rumor that cannot really excite because it instantly fizzles against the background knowledge that any sort of glory days for that city are well and truly gone. A rumor that you say because you’ve run out of inane things to say about restaurants and real-estate prices.

On the constancy of wars, massacres, and banishments, I think we are almost all in agreement. But I’m not as convinced as Barzun that we are producing things that centuries hence will give the illusion of glory and fixity. He was writing when many of the great literary voices of the 20th century were still alive. He was writing when there were still men recognized as statesman roaming the earth. I was born into the presidency of an actor, my son was born into the presidency of a Reality TV showman. Sure, gun to my head, I would have voted for both of them, but these are the facts. We live in a world where the words “Space Force” seem to be understood as an ironical Boomer in-joke about the lowered expectations for our civilization. People pretend to believe the Space Force is a good idea, and by doing so, they “own the libs.” Just as those cheap 89 acres on a lake exercise a hold over my imagination, so too does the two-world dismissal of the modern society that emerged from the alt-right “clown world.”

Yes, Queen Anne and Louis XVI were “in flux,” as Barzun writes. But they were Queen Anne and Louis XIV. Clown World is about the mayor of London trying to exercise his influence to create more gender balance among Wikipedia editors. Egalitarianism in unpaid labor. How inspiring! I tend to think of it as a “lean back” strategy. Women are outpacing men in college, in medicine, and in law. Slow down, ladies, and start contributing to the world’s collective knowledge about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. That’s Clown World.

Dublin has a major housing crisis, a homelessness problem, and a potential financial calamity on its hands. Housing prices in Dublin have been rising at a 20 percent clip over the last three years, while wages rose at a 2 percent clip. But the Irish political class has already moved on from legalizing abortion to the pressing issue of excising blasphemy laws from their constitution in another nationwide referendum. I guess that’s what they’ll tell the German creditors when the economy comes crashing down on their heads again: We lived in Clown World.

The brother bishops of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick put out little press releases about how his sexual predations have not only resulted in a few legal settlements with adult men (long known about), but probably included a minor (a probability they merely hoped wasn’t true). Everyone’s known about “Uncle Teddy’s” behavior’ for years, but nobody said anything because of the power he wielded, or the scandal it would cause his institution, or something. The Catholic Church is a leading institution of organized religion in Clown World.

Faced with the serious problem of having subsidized Chinese mercantilism and the reconsolidation of the Chinese Communist Party over Chinese society for decades, the U.S. has decided to pick trade fights with Canada over softwood lumber and signal potential retreat from the Korean Peninsula. The United States is Clown World’s Great Hegemon. Some of its biggest exports to China are Treasury notes and loud movies about enormous children’s toys.

Even thinking about this puts one in the mood for a cleansing read of Ecclesiastes and a kettlebell workout session scored by “Flight of the Valkyries.” But I didn’t bring the weights here to Muscongus Bay. There are just the stones, made flat and smooth by the tide. And tonight I will try to teach my three-year-old how to skip them like her father does. There’s the sound of the tide lapping across the rocks. And it will prevent me from tuning in to any broadcast of the New York Mets, baseball team of Clown World.

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