Podcast • October 13, 2009

Donald Pease: Obama’s "Transnational" Presidency

Re-read Moby-Dick and be cured of these absurd Nobel blues. The Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama underlines the world’s idea of our “transnational” President, our transnational country and our transnational moment. So does Moby-Dick, ...
Re-read Moby-Dick and be cured of these absurd Nobel blues.

The Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama underlines the world’s idea of our “transnational” President, our transnational country and our transnational moment. So does Moby-Dick, the mother of all literary imaginings of America in crisis. My teacher in conversation here is the Dartmouth analyst of novels and dreams, Donald Pease. His teacher in turn is the Caribbean prophet of post-colonialism and Melville commentator, the late great C. L. R. James (1901 – 1989). Joseph O’Neill, the post-9/11 novelist of cricket-in-New-York, Netherland gets invoked for his confirmation that the deepest dreams of humanity play themselves out in games, too.

Herman Melville, C. L. R. James & Donald Pease: deep dreams of America as the utopian world-nation.

A modern key into Melville turns on seeing that the hero of his masterwork is not the narrator and only survivor Ishmael — that was “the Cold War reading.” Neither do the feckless New England mates Starbuck, Stubb and Flask come close to checking the mad totalitarian Ahab or saving the ship or the day. Rather it’s the motley, polyglot sailors and whale hunters, Melville’s “mariners, renegades and castaways,” who sense what’s going on and stand for an alternative. It’s the crew from every nation and corner of the world who are victims of the tale and the only heroes in it. They’re not just the most skillful seamen but “the most generous and magnificent human beings on board,” in C. L. R. James words. Above all it’s the South Sea pagan Queequeg who embodies the universal ideals of skill, brotherhood, courage, heart.

Melville drew on that first and deepest dream of America, as a global utopia of transnationals — America as a trans-nation before it was a nation. Kansan-Kenyan-Hawaiian Barack Obama mined the same dream as a candidate. I was struck in the moment by how boldly, beamingly he put forth the basic premise in his campaign digression to Berlin in July ’08, where a vast crowd cheered his self-introduction “as a citizen,” he said, “a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.” He was drawing on the dream of his father, whose father had been a cook and house servant to the British, until America “answered his prayer for a better life.” Obama was holding up a renewed dream of America not as world’s policeman, much less world ruler, but as the world’s story.

Obama’s opposition picks up on the transnational theme, too, and turns it upside down. The rabid right feeds fantasies that Obama wasn’t even born here, that he’s a closet Muslim, an immigrant without papers, and/or a “soft terrorist,” a European implant or maybe a space alien. But the taunts surely say less about Obama than about the failed, fear-stricken voices that are reduced to nutbag versions of nativism and neo-imperialism.

Donald Pease leads me to believe that’s what the Nobel Committee was saying, and celebrating from the world’s perspective: that America has found its voice of glory just in time to face the transnational catastrophes: war, hunger, environmental ruin.

DP: Barack Obama is a man of dreams, a figure who solicits fantasy work. He knows how transpose waking dream work into a recognizable representation of a goal. So when Obama took the deepest American dream: that everyone can achieve prosperity–and said that I embody that, and then linked it to the deferred dream–the raisin in the sun, and then associated that with one of the most memorable of Sam Cooke’s songs–an anthem from the sixties, “A Change is Gonna Come,” he condensed all of those dream objects into a persona whereby he did not have to do anything except address the audience as you. “You.” However you project me, I will be that projection, that fantasy projection, for you. When he had done that, he was not defeatable. The Republicans ran a very savvy campaign: McCain constructed himself as a P.O.W from Viet Nam. He tried to erase Abu Ghraib from the American public consciousness by saying that he was the figure they did it to… He was working at the level of the dream figure. When they chose Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin became the equivalent of the pioneer mother. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan regressed the nation to colonial settlers in relation to the Indians. Sarah Palin was the ur-colonial mother who said she would willingly sacrifice not only the son who was already fighting in Iraq; she would sacrifice any child she bore in the name of the security of the homeland…”

CL: Donald Pease, I thought you were a literary critic. It turns out you’re a psychoanalyst.

DP: Literary critics are bed partners of psychoanalysts. You can’t be a decent literary critic without believing in the psyche…

CL: You’re known as a champion of the “trend” in “American Studies” on campus toward the “transnational.”

DP: The transnational is a fact of life. The disappearance of the Cold War enabled everybody to see that America was the node in a network of transnational relays, of economic circulation across the planet. Transnational is not a trend; it is an accurate description of the way this planet is in 2009. Barack Obama needs a global event—that is, an event that solicits the interest of everyone who is, as he puts it, a citizen of this planet—in order to connect his person with his vision. The problem with what happened with the Olympics, the reason that event was taken as such a terrible loss, was that he was supposed to be the transnational leader who would immediately solicit everyone’s agreement for whatever he asked. But he knew, or he should have known, that there were places in the Americas that needed the Olympics, both culturally and socially, much more than Chicago. What he needs now is an event that requires Obama as the figure who can respond to it responsibly.

CL: Like what?

DP: Part of it is linked now to the so-called green revolution. If and when he goes to China you will see, or I hope we will see, an event, an encounter take place, that will spell out the significance of every country across this globe living for the sake of the green revolution. The Chinese are right now embracing this as primarily a commercial venture but they are also embracing it as a planetary ideal. Obama shares that ideal, not just with the Chinese, but with everyone. That, I believe, can become the other face, the locus, of Obama.

Podcast • June 16, 2009

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland: the Novel of the Age

I make two guesses here: that Barack Obama knows almost as little about cricket as I do (which is: zero); and further (much more interesting) that the president has found in Joseph O’Neill’s cricket-in-New York ...

I make two guesses here: that Barack Obama knows almost as little about cricket as I do (which is: zero); and further (much more interesting) that the president has found in Joseph O’Neill’s cricket-in-New York novel Netherland a sort of founding text for this turnabout era, this reconciling moment we seem to have entered, this Age of Obama.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Joseph O’Neill. (40 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Joseph O’Neill: “Think fantastic!”

Everybody knows by now that Netherland has been Mr. Obama’s bedtime reading this spring. This is said to mean that our president is not all-wonk, that he still has a writer’s appetite for imaginative prose. To me it’s downright strange that nobody goes on to ask: but why this book? and what might it mean to him? These are the questions I’m chasing down here with the author.

The affinities between O’Neill and O’Bama are delicious. O’Neill, like the president a fine amateur athlete, had been playing cricket on Staten Island less than 48 hours before we met in Boston. Like the president, O’Neill is a hybrid of two cultures: his father comes of a family of IRA tough guys from West Cork; his mother is the daughter of a Syrian-Christian-Turkish hotel keeper on the Eastern Mediterranean port town, Mersin, in Turkey. O’Neill grew up mainly in The Hague in Holland. He went to mainly English schools and has a law degree from Cambridge. O’Neill’s great work of non-fiction, Blood-Dark Track, a “family history,” could have been subtitled Dreams, and Nightmares, from my Grandfathers. At a White House ceremony recently, O’Neill told me that not the least of what he shared with the president was a raging urge to step outside for a cigarette.

In the near background of our conversation is the immortal Trinidadian cricket aficionado C. L. R. James (1901 – 1989) and his autobiographical masterpiece, Beyond a Boundary. People keep commenting on Joseph O’Neill’s debt to F. Scott Fitgerald and The Great Gatsby for this novel about a climber and halfway gangster, Netherland‘s Trinidadian-American Chuck Ramkissoon, who dreams a new American dream and ends up, like Gatsby, literally dead in the water. But O’Neill is in much deeper debt to C. L. R. James for his cricket vision.

James was an inspiring writer in the pan-African liberationist movements of the 1930s and after. He was a fierce anti-imperialist and, contrarily, an ardent champion of pre-imperial English culture (he had virtually memorized Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in his teens) and most especially of cricket, the country sport that the Empire took to the colonies. “Cricket is much more than a game for Mr. James,” as Neville Cardus of the Guardian put it; “it is a way of life.”

# 1 on sports, the West Indes, colonialism

“Cricket is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle,” James wrote in Beyond a Boundary. “It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance.” Embedded in it, moreover, is a universal code of fair struggle and honor. Common phrases like “a straight bat” and “it isn’t cricket” became “watchwords of manners and virtue and the guardians of freedom and power.” James, who called himself “a British intellectual long before I was ten,” came to think that games were more expressive of a culture than poetry, drama and music, and that W. G. Grace, the Babe Ruth of 19th Century cricket, was a higher monument of English life than Queen Victoria. The game itself, he decided, was “the only contribution of the English educational system of the nineteenth century to the general educational ideas of Western civilization.” For black and brown West Indians, specifically, James found that schoolboy cricket had everything to do with self-mastery and liberation among a subject people. Club cricket and the international game turned out to be wide open to transformation by West Indian virtuosity. The starting point for C. L. R. James, as Joseph O’Neill recounts in our conversation, was that

Learie Constantine bats for the West Indes

…if you were one of the members of a colonized race in Trinidad — there are two in Trinidad: an African population and a South Asian population, almost 50-50 — you were allowed very few forms of self expression. And one of those was cricket. It was one of the arenas where certain hierarchies were abolished. A lot of sports have that in common. And he thought that was a great thing, where people could have access to their souls on the cricket field… Also the trajectory of Trinidad in particular towards independence went hand in hand with the West Indies cricket team, gradually becoming a team which reflected the West Indian population and not of the colonists. Quite separately from those local things, he took it as a given that cricket, as he said, is like art. It’s a wonderful thing, and why should we diminish ourselves – we being the colonized people in this case – by persisting to see it as being owned by the colonizer? Why can’t we own this sport? So what if they made it up? Are we not just as entitled to the particular bliss and gratifications that this sport offers? And that is quite a big important statement to make. It’s a way of throwing off colonial categories of the world and it’s a way of laying claim to what the world has to offer. We see now in the way cricket is organized around the world that India is the main power in cricket, and will undoubtedly remain in that position for many years. And the old seat of power in London is not what it was…

Frank Worrell against England, 1950

This is the thinking that Joseph O’Neill has learned from C. L. R. James, puts regularly into practice on the cricket grounds of New York, and has embodied in Chuck Ramkissoon, the most beguiling character in Netherland. It’s the thinking that feels like such a good fit with the First Reader in the White House.

If a novel confronts the American reader with the other, namely cricket, that is something that would obviously appeal to this President, who it seems to me is extremely interested in the tension between oneself and the other, and sees it as a very fruitful tension. I’ll put it another way: if there’s any American who could understand cricket, it is Barack Obama. And in many ways his platform is a Ramkisoonian platform, namely that the current boundaries (again the reference to James is intentional) of American vision have proved to be defective. They just have. And the Bush years represented a kind of catastrophic shrinkage of what it means to be American, and the idea of what the role of America in the wider world might be. Barack Obama, for autobiographical and intellectual reasons, is in a position to make another argument. I think so far he’s made it rather persuasively.

Joseph O’Neill in conversation with Chris Lydon, Boston, June 15, 2009.