Every time that I have participated in a grave political crisis, I have found myself distracted by beautiful weather, and the distractions have always seemed to me ignoble. I worried about this as a college student. The United States was falling apart over the Vietnam War and the civil-rights revolution and nameless other revolutions that no one understood. My friends and I responded by staging a student uprising in New York, which led to police riots and arrests and busy emergency rooms, which amounted to still more crises, national, municipal, academic, cultural and personal. And yet, at that moment precisely, amid the police sirens and the furious crowds, chilly April gave way to May. Floral aromas wafted through the soot. My fellow students and insurrectionists, the girls, came to believe that winter was at an end, and they doffed their overcoats, which sent them, too, into blossom. I was ecstatic—my cheeks, too, modestly abloom. But I did wonder about these joyous responses of mine—I, the surly Russian populist from anti-czarist times, stoking the revolutionary fires with my leaflets and agitations and meanwhile blinking in happy astonishment at how leafy was the leafiness and how buoyant the air.
Just now, in the early days of November 2016, I have undergone a similar experience of incoherent double response to world events. There is a famous chapter in Democracy in America in which Tocqueville describes the frenzy that overcomes Americans during election campaigns, and I could have written an appendix about our own election merely by producing an electrocardiogram of my own heartbeat. Continually I orated—privately to friends, intimately to the inside of my head, publicly to my readers—about fascism and Bonapartism and the toadies of Marshal Pétain. And yet, in the days immediately before the election—still more disgracefully, on election day itself, while strolling to the public school to mark my ballot—worse yet, on post-election day, when I knew how things had turned out—I was amazed to notice that, regardless of the republic and its traumas, I was vibrating in happy sympathy with the natural marvels of the Brooklyn sidewalks.
These caught my attention because, in the autumn light, which in November becomes exceptionally clear, every last thing begins to shimmer and glow. The trees lining the streets undergo their transformations, and, behind them, the hidden rows of stately brownstones likewise change color, which is amazing to see. Subtly the browns begin to redden. Every tinted molecule appears to be in flight from one point on the color spectrum to another, and, amid the chromatic chaos, the houses and the trees appear almost to be nodding and curtsying at one another. Miracles like these cry out for interpretation. I want to know, who planned these sidewalk astonishments? Who was the forgotten architectural genius? Are these the mystic emanations of the Over-Soul? The weightless leaves scatter beneath my shoe soles. I am not describing nothing. And yet, I haven’t forgotten—I do know that something is gigantically wrong.
Paul Krugman, in his post-election column in the Times, revealed that he, too, has undergone a version of these discombobulating experiences. “So where does this leave us?” he asked. “What, as concerned and horrified citizens, should we do? One natural response would be quietism, turning one’s back on politics. It’s definitely tempting to conclude that the world is going to hell, but that there’s nothing you can do about it, so why not just make your own garden grow? I myself spent a large part of the Day After avoiding the news, doing personal things, basically taking a vacation in my own head.” Vacations in my head! That is precisely what I am recounting. “But that is, in the end, no way for citizens of a democracy—which we still are, one hopes—to live.”
I am with Krugman, of course. And yet, if I find myself nattering about the Over-Soul and the sidewalks, it is because ever since the election I have been carrying around a volume of Emerson, the way grieving people carry around the Bible. Emerson was a quietist. He was endlessly despairing about American politics and the efforts of reform-minded people to bring about the higher world of ideals—the world of thought. “But I have not found that much was gained by manipular attempts to realize the world of thought. Many eager persons successively make an experiment in this way, and make themselves ridiculous. They acquire democratic manners, they foam at the mouth, they hate and deny. Worse, I observe, that, in the history of mankind, there is never a solitary example of success,—taking their own tests of tests. I say polemically, or in reply to the inquiry, why not realize your own world?”
Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.