September 19, 2000
How would our forefathers speak of the wild and crazy times in which we live? I mean, in sooth, our forebears in speech, who gave us our English tongue, wherewith we talk, write, wrangle, and broadly hoodwink one another. I spell this out, lest tightly-wound, high-minded busybodies within the wider fellowship we call the English-speaking world feel driven to tell us that many folk who now speak and think in English are not, indeed, the offspring of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (or even the Jukes and Kallikaks). One wouldn't wish to be tagged as 'unfeeling.' Still less would one wish to be seen as fostering romantick hellbentness and selfmindedness about Old English and its sibling tongues. Heavens, no. That is truly the pathway to unrest and ill deeds in the otherwise happy kingdom. Burning roods and white sheets would follow straight-away.
All that said, let us have a look at our times in a Saxon sightframe. Thus: 'On thisum geare feng Willelmus Clinton to rice & ricsode viii wintra. He saede thaet he ne marihwana naefre inhalode and thaet he ne secs haefde naefre mid thaem wifmanne, Lewinsky hâtenum.' Lucky for us, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle isn't still in business. Weighed even-handedly, though, I wene that the Chronicle was in its way nine or ten times more truthful than the New Tidings of York, that great newsblade and papyrus of lasting wisdom. (Paper of record doesn't cut it as sham-Old English.)
But let us leap ahead to Middle English. 'Whan that Clinton, with his bitten lippë, the folkes pain hath got in grippë, and telleth allë who him ear lendeth, some truth and lies which he well blendeth, then goën folk on pilgrimages, fleën Dodge, and smoke' blancmanges......' Well, maybe not. We can't all be J.R.R. Tolkien and live the eld in the new. Woe is us. Anygate, the baleful saga of the something-and-thirtieth firstman of the In-Gathered American States doesn't at all come up to the standards and hallmarks of epic poetry or even juke joint jumpin' folklore of the kind that Billy C. Riley and the Little Green Men could have brought forth in the here-and-now, were they not locked into the there-and-then. Our Billy C. is, unluckily, very much with us and so is his aspiring successor – 'waes se grimma gast, Algor haten.' That gifted fee-seeker – collector of the port of London – Geoffrey Chaucer might have understood them. And it's no hard work putting Billy C. in a couple of Chaucer's tales. If only this administration had an evil reeve, a canting bishop, or at least a corrupt monk…. And some swiving…. A whole wainload of swiving.....
Long-time readers will recall that in my third column I dealt with Indo-European myth and 'ideology' as reconstructed by the school of Georges Dumézil. Indo-Europeanists have uncovered a body of doctrine about a three-caste society made up of 1) priests, 2) warriors, and 3) economic producers. This inherited world-outlook continued, even after its disappearance as religion, profoundly to influence subsequent European thought. It is no accident that Hegel and Marx both insist on three stages of history, nor is it accidental for a North American republic to divide its governmental structure along just these lines, with a Supreme Court (first function), an Executive Branch (second function), and a Congress representing the interests of the economic producers and handing out pork the classically Celtic foodstuff to those favored by the state. The Second Amendment sought to protect the second-function right to keep and bear arms; the strictly republican innovation was to let members of the Third Estate take part in defense.
This brings me to that [entirely fictitious] epic poem, The Clintoniad. Setting the characters and action, comic or otherwise, of the Clintoniad in an Indo-European mythical framework should yield new insights into the meaning/meaninglessness of the story's central figure, the Emperor Prezboy.
Prezboy's misdeeds take place in a prosperous imperialist democracy set in Winland (North America) in a period of Late Hellenistic Despair. However well republican forms have been kept up, the state has become a World Empire which rules mankind as the Last Remaining Super-Power since it 'overthrew the Persians.' The career of Athens from city-state to empire was clearly in the mind of the unknown poet when he (or she) composed the work. The drama increases when sinister forces pressure Prezboy to cane the Mespotamian wogs from time to time with missiles and Greek fire in the name of World Justice but really on the premise that 'he who does not submit to the Empire is a rebel against God or maybe Mr. Charles Darwin.' Pursued relentlessly by his enemies, the hellbent Kinstar and Henricus Dermaticus, Prezboy commits a series of comic acts, which, once found out, spell his possible doom and downfall.
I will not summarize the deeds which bring Prezboy to the edge of an unseating. The central problem is whether those actions draw upon and embody some deeply hidden mythical structure. A number of answers have been proposed.
Some writers have seen in Prezboy a sort of North American Indian (Native American) 'trickster' figure modeled on Coyote or possibly the Road Runner. Critics of this interpretation bewail its seeming polical correctness and, more to the point, argue that the character's main epithet, 'slick,' repeated throughout the work, is there for metrical reasons and adds no real meaning. In this they are partly right and partly wrong. He is clearly a trickster figure, but one who has been put into the wrong mythical tradition.
A possible connection is with the Norse trickster figure, Loki, who lost his right arm subduing the giant Fenriss wolf by treachery. In IE tradition, the 'left-handed' figure who loses his right hand or arm does so to bamboozle a public enemy while preparing an attack on that enemy. These myths belong to the second function, while the Prezboy figure is reknowned for his antipathy to the warriors except insofar as they provide useful public spectacles to distract the public from his own activities. Anyway, Prezboy's left-wingness trumps any lefthandedness, factual or mythical. The Latin word for left-handed was sinister.
In the euhemerized Roman telling of this IE myth, Mucius Scaevola ('left-handed') burns his right hand off in a fire to show his commitment to a false agreement with a public enemy. The contrast with Prezboy seems stark indeed. But mythic structures are subject to far-reaching transpositions of detail, as Dumézil showed.
Confusion of the three 'functions' is common in later recapitulations of IE myth, particularly where the actual castes have undergone historical remodeling. Thus, at Rome the producers were drawn into the second function by the leadership of the original warrior elite, especially as the Republic expanded and became a Universal Empire. They still had their economic duties as well, and under this double burden migrated to Rome itself to become motor voters.
It is not surprising that similar confusion of mythical structures took place once Winland became an Empire. For Prezboy portrayed as a pork-handling provincial politico of Celtic extraction to aspire to the Imperial Office despite his third function origins reflects the changing nature of imperial society and suggests the ultimate source of the mythico-thematic confusions on which his story is built. Thus Prezboy represents the dream of total, irresponsible Power, and the confusions are those of a postrepublican society only dimly aware of its origins and its own decaying mythical/social structures. Still, old themes make themselves heard, however dimly, just as they do in the Niksoniad [also entirely fictitious], which centers on the comic action of second function (?) burglars and, from the third function, newspapermen, a psychiatrist, and a scholar/soothsayer, who is subsidized by an oil billionaire and somehow entrusted with foreign affairs, a second function task.
IE themes, however mangled and torn ('disembedded') from their original mythic structures, are present in the Clintoniad, but mostly as echo. Subjected to Seinfeldian analysis, the Prezboy story is one of self-seeking and thrill-seeking – yes, and 'rent-seeking' – in 'an administration about nothing.' Late imperial nihilism and decay are the real themes; but remnants of IE myth at least decorate this sordid tale of 'wrack and wroll' – a phrase repeatedly used by Prezboy, especially when bombing foreigners.1
IE literature is not without comment on such matters. The Hindu prophecy of Kali Yuga is quite to the point: 'Goin' to hell in a handcart, innit, Shiva?' To this sort of talk, the great supremo's main response is constant blather about 'diversity.' Even this is subject to comic inversion, as it appears that his real goal is 'having a good time in diverse cities.' Or maybe he refers to urban planning initiatives. The point is bestritten, as the scholars say.
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