Friday, January 09, 2009

The Blagodyssey

On the same day that Fosco admitted his friend crush on Anne Hathaway, he has a more embarrassing admission to make: he's really turned into a fan of CRAZIEST GUV EVER, Rod Blagojevich. I would say that this guy is either COMPLETELY BRATZDOLL INSANE or that he has the largest, densest cojones in the Western world--except that those two things aren't mutually exclusive. All I know is that I want him to stick around as long as possible and to talk to the media as much as he can. Seriously. I mean did you see today's presser?

I can't decide which part I like better:
  • His reference to "the Golden Rule" as the way to run government.
  • The parade of handicapped and sick Illinoisians behind him.
  • The part where he claims he's being impeached because he has tried too hard to help the poor and helpless.
Oh wait: obviously my favorite part was the poem! Yes, that's right, Rod Blagojevich concluded his press conference by reciting part of a Tennyson poem. I think it's worth considering it here. This is "Ulysses" by Alfred Lord Tennyson:
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,--
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me--
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads--you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

While Blago only quotes the final six lines of the poem, he also claims to have memorized it in its entirety and so I think it is appropriate to consider what Blago is trying to say by quoting it.

This poem begins in a valedictory mood as the poetic speaker, the aged Ulysses (Odysseus), considers the small amount of life that remains for him. He cannot be satisfied by his work as an "idle king"; rather, he still yearns for travel ("I cannot rest from travel: I will drink / Life to the lees"). In line twelve, Tennyson provides throws a phrase ("hungry heart") forward into the future to be caught by Bruce Springsteen. Ulysses remembers his adventures and chafes against spending an old age of inaction: "How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!" Such inaction is "vile"; rather, Ulysses's preference is "To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought."

The second stanza is a meditation on his son Telemachus. Ulysses praises (although somewhat faintly) Telemachus's abilities in everyday governance; Telemachus will govern well. However, Ulysses's interests go beyond these: "He works his work, I mine."

In the third stanza, Ulysses conjures his sailors and his ship. He commands that, despite the nearness of death, "something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done." He calls his crew to him: "Come, my friends, / 'T is not too late to seek a newer world." The outcome of the journey is uncertain, they will either "touch the Happy Isles" or "the gulfs will wash us down." The final six lines are defiant: while old age has weakened the warriors, they retain the "will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

So what is Blago doing here? I think it's actually a pretty brilliant move to insert himself into this poem's narrative. By referencing this poem, he recognizes that he will not remain governor for much longer--his time, as Ulysses's, is growing short. However, in the time that remains, Blago does not intend to "rest unburnish'd"; rather, he will "shine in use" by doing as much as he can (even engaging in battle if necessary). In a more colloquial sense, he's going to "go down swinging." At the same time, this poem manages to make it seem as if Blago's failures at governance are those of someone who is above such an everyday pursuit. Ulysses is better than his kingly duty to "mete and dole / Unequal laws unto a savage race"; and so is Blago. He is hero stuck in the job of a bureaucrat. And so, by placing himself inside this poem, Blago has rewritten the narrative of his final days in office. Ulysses feels no shame; rather, it is those who lack his spirit and will who should be ashamed. Ulysses and Blago are heroes and they plan to go out with a bang.

Of course, I doubt anyone is going to buy this (except maybe, for a few brief emotional moments, Fosco). But isn't it thrilling? Blago is pulling out all the stops here, trying to use language's considerable powers to change his situation. And even if it's not working, it's fascinating. I really can't help rooting (just a little) for this guy.

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