I worked one summer as a kitchen boy in a Wisconsin summer camp. It was one of those jobs from which you fall down at night near too tired to sleep. A previous occupant of my bunk had left behind a copy of Atlas Shrugged. So I spent the summer, between work and sleep, reading the perfect companion for my teenage summer.
I don’t care for short stories. I prefer the heft of the doorstop book, reassuring me that I can immerse myself in the fantasy for a good long time. “Yes, yes,” I think. “Thank you. Take me. Anywhere but here . . . ”
My companion for the lockdown is The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet, written by David Kahn in 1967 and updated by him in 1996. One thousand pages so interesting that my mind will not reject them even though they are informative.
My new novel, not yet released, is Forty Years at Anstett, a fictional account of one man’s life at a New England prep school. In it, a young man returns from imprisonment in Japan during the Russo–Japanese War. The fellow applies for the job of instructor of languages. He has no academic credentials, but a very practical one: He was forced, in prison, to learn Japanese, Russian, Chinese, and, more important, how to learn languages. He challenges the Head (my protagonist) to point out the dullest lad in the school, to name a language, to leave the applicant alone with the boy for an afternoon, and then to assess his progress in the new tongue.
“Well,” the Head says, “Latin or Greek. I’d say Latin; it’s simpler as it shares our alphabet.” “No,” the applicant says, “it’s simpler to teach Greek. A new alphabet is a code. What twelve-year-old boy has ever been able to resist a code?”
Not I, certainly. It seems I’ve spent my professional life fashioning them and solving them, and have found the process commutative, which is to say, the study of one is the study of the other—it works in both directions.
Here’s what I mean. Raymond Chandler wrote, in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (1939), that it is near impossible to craft a good murder mystery, as it requires two otherwise unconnected skills: the ability to write beautifully and the ability to fashion a code.
He is near right in his observation. The two skills—while not mutually exclusive per se—are unlikely to be found fully developed in any practitioner, because to achieve excellence, he or she would have to devote all energy to one or the other. I know of no great contemporary instrumentalist who is also a great composer.
The intersection of cryptography and literary merit is discoverable, though, in one very particular craft, and it is my own: writing drama.
For the drama has much in common with the detective novel. The clues in each must, scene by scene, be displayed to the reader in such a way that their importance will become both clear and acceptable only when the protagonist (and, so, the reader) has finally arranged them, correctly, at the work’s conclusion. If a clue is omitted, the writer is cheating; if it is too apparent, he is a hack.
“Oh, yes, it was there all the time” is the revelation capping not only the story of Sam Spade and his Maltese falcon, but that of Oedipus.
I’ve always understood my job as a playwright as crafting the code. I came to this understanding through watching the audience.
In the various storefront theaters of my youth, I was offered the opportunity to make a living superior to mine as a cabdriver, if and as I could please the audience: not the critics, not the universities, but the paying audience.
I could write sufficiently well to keep ’em in their seats, but I was not going to get out of the Yellow Cab Company, I saw, unless I could do something additionally, which was (and is) to lead the audience unconsciously, at the play’s end, to a revelation, which is to say, to a thrill.
Most plays, and all dramas, conclude, “Well, I suppose life is just like that.” This is sufficient to get the audience back into their cars, but by half the drive home, the play is forgotten. It may have diverted, but it did not thrill. This is to say, it did not deliver anything that could not have been foreseen. One says of such plays, “They came in humming the plot.”
Well, I wanted to trade the delights of the Yellow Cab Company for those of Broadway. So I sat down to the study of a code, and the code was, and is, human behavior.
I now learn from David Kahn the same lesson I saw in the storefronts: The cipher cannot be resolved without possession of the key.
Human behavior is fairly clear. One did or did not do or say this or that; one keeps marrying the wrong guy, or forgetting one’s car keys, Aunt Mae always arrives late, and so on.
The attempt to interpret these actions, to determine the underlying assumptions, and, so, possibly, arrange them for the understanding of the group, the family, or the individual, is a search for a unifying key.
Psychoanalysis is, essentially, cryptanalysis. It is the attempt to find the key that will render intelligible, that is, arranged into a cause-and-effect progression, a string of various otherwise puzzling actions. It is fairly useless as a clinical tool (for, finally, the “solution” is as moot as is, in most cases, the complaint). But it is a handy theoretical tool, for a dramatist/cryptanalyst. He may walk the cat both backward and forward, discovering, in his own, unconscious creative process, the hidden key, which resolves his disparate perceptions and creations (an event, a line, an interchange) into that whole that may at the play’s end be revealed as a progression—that is, as a surprise.
This key is called the plot.
The practical codebreaker differs from the psychoanalyst in this: It is not his job to evaluate and act on the decoded information, but only to strip away the code.
Applied to psychoanalysis: Rather than asking “What was the repressed trauma to which cause I can assign these symptoms?” we may ask “What was the process that caused that particular trauma (plaintext) to be so encrypted; that is, what is the key?”
For, even if the hidden trauma is “correctly” determined, this can mean nothing more than that it has been identified in a way sufficiently satisfying to doctor and patient as to be acceptable; and the very fact that the patient accepts a psychoanalytic solution (which, again, is merely suppositional) might argue for its falsity. Diagnostically, he leaves the analysis not having had his life changed by revelation but gratified in his assessment not only of his own reasoning but of his courage in being able to accept a (putatively) new idea.
Similarly, modern drama and entertainment, and the so-called news media that flog it, present as a cure for (inescapable) human anxiety various solutions that, in their inaccuracy and inconclusivity, induce the individual to commit to further, more-drastic (which is to say, more-macabre and more-bizarre) restatements of the original diagnosis: E.g., you are not “anxious,” you are legitimately appalled, and frightened, as who would not be, as the world is ending (burning up, poisoned, overpopulated, run by Monsters).
The committed liberal, leftist, or analysand is like the government establishments that have devoted so much time, energy, and treasure to the creation of a code that no evidence could convince them that it has been broken and so must be replaced.
Drama carries an acceptable, but not a transformative, solution. Only tragedy has the power to transform, its revelation shocking the hero/sufferer (who is only the representative of the audience) into an absolutely new life. This life, however different from or “lesser” than the previous one, has this great benefit: It can be led truthfully, without either shame or anxiety, as one no longer fears discovery. The neurotic individual or organization fears not that its code may be broken but the knowledge that it already has been.
A mass movement coalesces around previously unconnected forces—those that, absent a catalyst, cannot combine to any effect. Its formation will be predated to account for a supernatural beginning, but this merely raises the question “Why now?”
Islam, Christianity, and, in the 20th century, Marxism and Fascism emerge and proliferate exponentially, creating a new polity, spreading first through the joy of novelty, then through the herd instinct, and, finally, through force directed at the unconvinced.
A doctrine that cannot be proved, and whose only benefit is membership in a herd of the similarly professing, must (like a neurosis) be vehemently defended, as its refutation would threaten the individual not only with expulsion but with shame at his complicity, which is to say, with self-knowledge. But this, again, just raises the question: Why does this or that belief or delusion emerge and metastasize at a particular time? What is the relationship between the individual and the mass movement?
Tolstoy asks the question in the epilogue to War and Peace. He observes that 5 million Frenchmen didn’t march into Russia just because Napoleon told them to. There is some relationship between his and their folly, but the relationship is unclear. The question, he tells us, is “What is power?” For, if they did not march because of his orders (a proposition that is, on reflection, absurd), why did they march?
Why did the young of my post-war generation embrace the various doctrines of free love, anti-Americanism, dissent, and mass movement, which, here as everywhere in the West, have matured as leftism, its various doctrines as absurd and obviously destructive as Napoleon’s (or Hitler’s) invasion of Russia: open borders, “free” health care and education, and a universal salary not only for our citizens but (given open borders) for the entire world.
I’ve been puzzled for a while by the absence in this virulent movement not only of a handy name (for leftism defines the thing only in relation to its opposite) but of a leader.
In the upcoming election, the Left has proposed, and its adherents have accepted, no candidate onto whom can be grafted even the most basic and most provisional attributes of charisma, wisdom, or record (however factitious) of accomplishment.
Why has the Left, intent on destroying the West, put forth no leader, and why has no leader put himself forward to fill the vacuum of power? What does the Left have, in place of a Marx, a Hitler, a Lenin, or, indeed, a Roosevelt or a Churchill? One who could state and embody its principles and thereby unify a country or a party? Perhaps the Left’s inability to propose a leader—and, so, a coherent (even if loathsome) vision—is not a problem but a solution.
The question, then, is: To what problem?
For four years I’ve found the “massteria” (Professor Harold Hill, The Music Man, 1957) around Trump healthy, as energy directed thus was unavailable for the Left’s beatification of a new leader (a führer). How fortunate for the country, I thought.
The national emergency has given me some leisure to think and consider; it was awarded by a virus. My question of the Virus is “Why now?”
The virus could not have spread globally without universal air travel, the national wealth that created such travel, and the disposable incomes that allowed individuals to take trips.
The Black Death reached Europe through rats on merchant ships from the Orient, the Spanish flu was spread here largely by servicemen returning from Europe, and so on, and so on.
Each, perhaps, could be seen as occurring through, or spreading because of, some stage of progression or, say, maturity, in the economy, or, to flirt with eschatology, in the Progress of the World.
The individual lifespan lengthens, and now the elderly are faced with diseases unknown to or rare among grandparents who would have been dead at a similar age.
Traffic congestion, attendant pollution, anxiety, and so on are the result of urban success. The highways take the mass of the newly solvent to the suburbs, the commutes become intolerable, and the old cities die, or exist (all the old capitals of commerce) as tourist attractions, or amusement parks, with the super-wealthy maintaining their skyboxes above the entertainment, as in “The Masque of the Red Death.”
The liberal, elite cities and states raise taxes, because they must, as their tax base disappears. As the services disintegrate, the rich follow the middle class out and leave the cities to the homeless, their ranks engorged by the aliens attracted to the notion of something-for-nothing (as who is not?), which is to say the Garden of Eden before the Fall.
There it is, before our eyes, but those who call attention, like our friend Laocoön, are swept back into the sea, and the wooden horse, inside which the voices of enemy soldiers are heard, is dragged inside the city.
The unabated loathing of Trump must be considered a delusion, for how could one man be responsible not only for treason, collusion, malversation, and other crimes that, though they might be practiced individually, would, in their conjoined execution, each cancel the efficacy of the other (e.g., armed robbery and embezzlement)? Consider that in addition to this endless litany of his human corruptions, he is, coincidentally, indicted as responsible for the weather and the spread (if not the inauguration) of a global pandemic.
A comparison of Trump Psychosis with adoration of Hitler—though perhaps appropriate mechanically, that is, in terms of power exerted on the mob—is inexact in terms of utility. For the apotheosis of Hitler united the Germans behind a shared vision; he personified, and gave voice to, a nationalist desire for revenge, pride, and power, in which vision, and through its supposed benefits, the individuals could participate.
But the revanchist Left is not opposed to Trump as the avatar of the Right, of capitalism, of Americanism (once called “patriotism”). They cannot object to his policies per se, because the policies, one by one, are demonstrably superior in practice to any the Left has employed and, in reason, to any they have suggested. Their objections are all ad hominem, alleging various “isms,” which epithet may be applied, given but little inventiveness, to any of his words or acts. (As they may to any of yours or mine.) To suggest it is his acts that enrage the Left would be as to understand the Islamist attacks of September 11 as architectural criticism.
The Trump “resistance” began in the first hours of his presidency and has continued unabated by either reason or fatigue. There are no dissentient voices on the left, for any suggesting consideration, let alone dissent, have been expelled, vilified, and “canceled”—they are thus no longer on the left. Perhaps in this the disease starts to proclaim itself.
Leo Marks was a British codebreaker at Bletchley Park, during the Second World War. In his book Between Silk and Cyanide (1998), he writes about the codebreaker’s disease: Engaged as they are in trying to break the code, it is their last thought at night, and their first on awakening. Many of them became ill—physically or psychologically—from the strain.
Marks was in charge of decrypting the messages sent by Allied agents parachuted into Nazi-controlled Holland. He was, he writes, driven mad by the suspicion that the Allied agents had been captured and turned—that is, that they, and so their codes, were being manipulated by the Nazis. He could find no error in the transmissions, but his suspicions would not go away. One morning he awoke and realized that the problem (that he could find no errors) was, of course, the solution: It would have been impossible for an Allied spy in Nazi Holland to transmit—in haste and in hiding, risking death—without errors in the transmission. The agents had been captured or turned, he concluded.
There are no “errors” in the unity of the Left, which may be a key to the solution of their irrational, implacable loathing. Trump is hated as the most prominent example of one who’s not afraid to employ reason. He has been “canceled” but ridicules their verdict.
It is not his plans (the Left doesn’t hear of them) or his accomplishments (they are discounted, attributed to others, glossed over, or dismissed as nefarious) that are loathed, but the man himself, as he had the temerity to hold himself superior to the zeitgeist.
The zeitgeist is the Decline of the West, which had been sweeping the world since the American apogee, victory in World War II, and the advent of the most prosperous economy in history.
Things age, mature, and die. Fascism was a 20-year-long dictatorship, expanded through murder and terror. American exceptionalism and prosperity are the overwhelming story of the 20th century; it was not spread by the sword, and it will not die by the sword. Lincoln said that all the massed armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined could not take a drink from the Ohio, but American culture has been decaying throughout my lifetime, as must any organism. Mr. Trump’s presidency has lengthened the American experience by some number of years. That number will be debated by the civilizations that succeed us, who will wonder at our fall, as the educated once did at that of Nineveh and Tyre.
Tragedy, to be compelling, must address a prerational experience or unity. A Hokusai painting of a wave makes us nod in recognition, as we do at a resolution of a Bach fugue. We cannot explain or dissect our experience of understanding, but it is undeniable. True art creates in us the same feeling of fulfillment, its possible description just beyond the rational mind.
The technician might explain it technically, the musician employing the cycle of fifths, or the painter some theory of color or proportion, but this merely puts the problem at one remove. For, after the technical reduction, even the expert cannot quite answer the question of why: Why, for example, is the eye so pleased by the golden mean? Like any great truth, our understanding of art must devolve into metaphysics or an assertion merely leading to an infinite regression.
The human mind will and must assemble phenomena into cause and effect. We will intuit or ascribe a causal relationship to two events that, to another, have no possible connection: Aunt Edna did not call on my birthday because she’s furious I didn’t sufficiently praise her new frock; Germany is troubled because of the Jews; we are suffering a pandemic because Trump did or did not act quickly enough, and an economic disaster because he did.
Psychoanalysis (and politics) attempts to address or capitalize on our human suggestibility, particularly on our frenzied willingness to assign our disquiets to another. Solutions offered thus flatter our ability to identify a problem, suggest its cure, and remind us to come back tomorrow for another dose.
Drama acts similarly, engaging us in the assurance that the cause of all problems is evident, and that our reason will suffice to cure them. The Bad Butler did it; Deaf People are People, Too; Love Is All There Is; and so on. If we enjoy the mixture, it must (and will) be taken regularly.
Tragedy provides not reassurance but calm through the completion of a mechanical progression. Its end is probative, for it is the disposition of all the variables (the code) stipulated at its beginning—mathematically, there is no remainder.
The journey of Oedipus begins because there is a plague on Thebes; it is the king’s job to conquer it. Without the initiating impulse (the stated problem), the play becomes merely a drama, it cannot be a tragedy, and we take away from it not that peace from recognizing the human condition but the lesson “Do not sleep with your mother.”
Can our current national emergency be viewed as perhaps a classical tragedy rather than as sordid drama? We see that the various factions are fighting over a disordered kingdom; each employs (to its own degree) the universal tools of indictment, incitement, appeal, reason, conspiracy, deception, and so on (assignment of these to taste). Considering ourselves as the dramatist, we can prognosticate an end: civil war, dissolution and chaos, conquest by a foreign power, return to a new and healthier polity actually based on the Constitution . . .
But such an end, to satisfy as tragedy, must be understood as the resolution of that specific problem absent the appearance of which we would not have a play. (Hamlet’s father dies.)
But in our case, what brought about the plague of Thebes?
The builders of the Tower of Babel suffered from hubris. They thought that they could aspire to heaven and raise themselves above human concerns, and that the various conflicting impulses of humanity would go away if we all spoke with one tongue. This tongue, of course, would be that of the builders, and I will leave comparisons with globalism to the reader. But it is no sin to be prosperous, and even the most committed Marxist wishes only to regularize (that is, reduce) the wealth and consumption of his neighbor.
What is the precipitating event or situation whose resolution would be one of those mooted above? We know our current pandemic came from China, and from trade with China. And every schoolchild knows that April showers bring May flowers, Mayflowers bring Pilgrims, and Pilgrims bring typhus.
The demagogues of the Left have discovered anew the ancient secrets of corruption, collusion, and decay, and, like all their predecessors, delight in their discovery: indicting their opponents for their own crimes.
We had, on April Fool’s Day 2020, two events warring for pride of place in our reconstruction of the tragic cryptogram: the pandemic, and the election of Donald Trump. But tragedy cannot have two precipitating events. (See the child’s excuse “I didn’t do my homework because the dog ate it, and my mother has the flu.”) Two explanations are none.
We must choose one, determine how the two are, if not identical, then conjoined (“My mother has the flu, she usually feeds the dog, she could not, the dog became hungry and ate my homework”), or discard them both and begin our work again, remembering Tolstoy’s admonition that the first or most apparent manifestation of an event is not necessarily the cause: The savage seeing the puffs of smoke first might conclude that they caused the locomotive.
The Left insists that our national disruption is caused by the election of President Trump, which affront would be resolved by his removal from office.
But if the successful results of their machinations brought us to civil war or economic collapse, then the effect would be out of adjustment with the supposed cause. (See the all too common explanation of spousal murder: You would have shot her too if you saw the way she looked at me.)
That message was fictionalized in Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand lived through the Russian Revolution, in St. Petersburg, and spent her working life, in fiction and nonfiction, writing about the horror.
Here is another report, by Alexander, Grand Duke of Russia, first cousin to the czar, from Once a Grand Duke (1931):
What was to be done about those princes and countesses who spent their lives going from door to door and spreading monstrous lies about the Czar and Czarina? What was to be done with that scion of the ancient family of Princes Dolgoruky who sided with enemies of the Empire? What was to be done with the president of Moscow University, Prince Troubetskoi, who turned that famous institution of learning into a radical campus? What was to be done with that brilliant Professor Milukoff, who felt it his duty to denounce the regime in foreign lands, undermining our credit abroad and gladdening the hearts of our foes? . . . What was to be done with our press who met with rousing cheers every news of our defeat on the Japanese front?
The message on Nebuchadnezzar’s wall was “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
Trump Mania is not a message, but a key, serving to obscure an underlying message.
The key (the accusations of the Left) disguises an underlying terror—operating here just as the near-psychotic, immobilized by a terrifying, free-floating anxiety, extemporizes specific phobias in an effort to gain some control.
“It is not that I am losing my mind in unnameable panic,” he thinks, “but that Martians, or mice, food additives, or Jews are trying to destroy me.”
The Left’s loathing of Trump differs from their other attempts at constructive phobia in this: He is not an event, a phenomenon, an attitude, or a group, but an actual human being.
He has supplanted previous attempted solutions to panic, but universal and vicious loathing comes close, in its virulence, to revealing the key, and thus the presence of an underlying code.
He is a mere human being who has the temerity to disregard the taboo.
In the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, some brave soul might speak up for one accused of witchcraft; but no one would have dared to say, and few to think, “There is no such thing as witchcraft.”
The Left’s hatred of Trump reveals their code. They here are like the ghoul Rumpelstiltskin, whose power disappeared when the victim said his name.
Trump is loathed because he is feared, and he is feared because he named the monster.
The Monster is the zeitgeist, that is to say, the Left.
Something to Consider
If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?
If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.