What exactly does talent involve? I know what it doesn’t involve. I fully subscribe to the declaration of the autobiographical hero of Anatole France’s Le Lys rouge (The Scarlet Lily): “I am not so deprived of all talent as to occupy myself with politics.”
What precisely is American politics about? Does it involve talent? I submit that politics hereabouts is a spectator sport, a form of gamesmanship. You root for a candidate the way you root for a baseball team, which you love even as you hate or despise the other teams. “Partisanship” is related to “party,” and you know which one you root for: the donkeys or the elephants. Elephants, we know, are smart, and donkeys are smarter than most people realize—how else could they follow surefootedly a steep, narrow and perilous mountain path? But how much should we really care about the propaganda of one or the other?
What kind of talent, if any, is required for politics? Could it involve intellect? Far from it. While all other minorities have their champions and victories, the only American minority that is either despised or ignored is the intellectual, which never even had a successful spokesman.
Just think: I can come up with only three presidential candidates who qualified as intellectuals, all unsuccessful: Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. Well, the last-named was a bit of a nutcase, but the other two were not, yet their indisputable talents went for naught. (They might not have made more effective presidents than a Bush or a Carter, but that is not the point.) It is true that Obama, starting with his earlier distinction at the Harvard Law School, may qualify as an intellectual, but his success came in spite, not because, of it—for other reasons, which not being my subject, I won’t go into here.
I adduce as characteristic of hoi polloi downgrading talent an incident from my brief, inglorious military career during World War Two. A fellow soldier asked me where I was from originally. I named the now defunct country of Yugoslavia. “I see,” or something similar, he said: “that explains your broken lingo.” Now, I have been accused of linguistic elitism, or, in other words, using some “big words” readily and unabashedly. The sort of vocabulary that is considered by the majority affected, arrogant, elitist, and definitely undesirable. But nothing like a broken lingo.
And what, in any case, is wrong with elitism? All it implies is a certain choosiness (from the Latin eligere, to choose). As in preferring the beautiful to the ugly (Liz Cho and Sade Baderingwa over Lena Dunham and Kathy Griffin), the intelligent over the dumb (Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen over Quentin Tarantino and Judd Apatow), the true poet over the faker (Amy Clampit and Mary Oliver over Jori Graham and Maya Angelou). Or, if we must pick politicians, the ones who don’t filibuster over the ones who do.
But talent, true talent, is up against an all too formidable adversary: stupidity. Consider the brilliant epigraph that the wonderful Ödön von Horváth appended to his masterpiece, Tales from the Vienna Woods: “Nothing provides so well the sense of infinity as does stupidity.” In German: Nichts gibt so sehr das Gefühl der Unendlichkeit als wie die Dummheit, and I always suspected that the redundant als wie was intended to accommodate popular, non-elitist parlance.
Stupidity is truly pervasive in our society on all levels. Take the unfortunates who whoop it up and give standing ovations to a Broadway show, no matter how stupid. Or the ones who assume that an Oscar, Tony, or Pulitzer—even a Nobel—is a guarantee of quality, as witness such a phony movie as The Artist, play like Water by the Spoonful, or novel like The Name of the Rose. The accolade they deserve is a kick in the rear.
Even smart people have their weaknesses, why else the quasi-intellectual success of the Wodehouse novels, where the facile joke is on the stupidity of Bertie Wooster. That is a type of cheap humor rather than genuine wit, as in works where the laughs come from the clash of equals.
Of course there are inequalities of talent as well. I often cite the story of the juggler performing before a French king by impaling tossed peas on a long needle held by his son. The king rewarded him with a sack full of small, round objects the thrower took to be nuggets, but proved to be more peas.
Which brings me to the circus, another parallel with politics. Here some remarkable talents of a sort are applauded by multitudes that wouldn’t set foot in a theater or opera house. Now, I have nothing against acrobats and artistes—I enjoy their skills myself—but I do not equate them with the talent of artists without a final “e.”
And while we are on the subject of benightedness, what about the not inconsiderable number of responders to my last blog post about feminine beauty, in which I cited some seventy actresses who had, over the years, elicited the fan in me. (By the way, I should not have overlooked Blythe Danner and Emmanuelle Béart.) It netted me the ire of feminists or P.C. peddlers who accused me of “objectification,” as if responding to feminine beauty were tantamount to reification.
Yet this was much like my admiration for feminine beauty in art, as for instance in the women of Botticelli, without my slightest desire to hump a painting. To love beauty in any form, from the highest to the lowest, seems to me justified, even if it is merely preferring the dogs in a kennel show to those on a street corner. (Next I’ll be accused of zoophilia.)
But even if relishing the beauty of an actress were sexually motivated, where is the harm? Is that such a sin? Is it objectification? It is unfortunate that the term “sex object” has been invented. Unless you are a brute, fantasizing sex with a woman—even if you prefer Angelina Jolie to Barbra Streisand—does not reduce her to a sex object. Or else all those amorous husbands enjoying intercourse with their wives would be turning them into sex objects. I doubt whether mere kindred of souls motivates conjugal intercourse. The reductive view of healthy sexual appetite as objectification I find truly objectionable.
I will make one concession here. It is quite understandable for us poorer folk to envy or resent the fortune of billionaires, especially when such wealth is acquired on the basis of being able, under contesting circumstances, to toss a ball into a basket. So I can appreciate a homely woman’s resentment of a Liz Taylor or Carla Bruni. Even then, though, it is more dignified to keep that feeling private, if not indeed unvoiced, rather than carrying on shrilly about alleged objectification.