Arts and culture in the age of Trump
In these desperate political days when facts are being flicked away like flies, a minor incident in Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” keeps replaying itself in my mind.
Ivan Chebutykin, an army doctor and an old friend of the Prozorov family, carelessly drops an expensive clock that Irina, the youngest of the Prozorov sisters, tells him belonged to her dead mother, whom he once loved.
Chebutykin, who adores the sisters but drinks too much, curiously replies: “Very possibly. No doubt it was your mother’s if you say so, but what if I didn’t really break it, what if we only think I did? What if we only think we exist and aren’t really here at all? I know nothing and nobody else knows anything either.”
Chekhov provides just enough context to explain Chebutykin’s burst of nihilism. The doctor blames himself for having recently lost a patient and is full of regret for a life that has passed him by. At the end of the play, as the sisters steel themselves after their hopes have been dashed, he mutters, “None of it matters. Nothing matters.”
It’s doubtful that President Trump, were he to catch a revival of “The Three Sisters” one weekend in Palm Beach, would notice any resemblance between himself and Chekhov’s jaded doctor. Chebutykin is too weak and minor a figure to appeal to a man who has his name slapped on gilt buildings across the world. But they both play fast and loose with reality to elude accountability and excuse their weaknesses with an overgeneralized cynicism.
As a character, Trump falls outside the Russian playwright’s repertoire, but it’s fascinating to consider how Chekhov might have balanced sympathy for Trump the man with satire for Trump the political cartoon. No wonder the president, a businessman who has deployed his marketing genius to turn himself into a successful political brand, wants to pull the plug on governmental funding for writers and artists. Who needs the bad publicity?
Trump’s recent budget proposal has put the arts and humanities in his crosshairs. His administration sees no public interest in supporting the way Americans make sense of the world through creative and intellectual expression. The “law and order” president wants to increase defense spending while dismantling the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, agencies that represent only a meager fraction of the federal budget.
None of this comes as a surprise, yet the clear articulation of Trumpian values is still a shock to the system. The arts aren’t a useless appendage that can be lopped off without inflicting serious damage. They are an essential part of our navigational equipment as a species.
Since the election, I have been urgently seeking direction from dramatists in the way a cardiac patient might turn to nutrition and meditation after a heart attack. I have been thinking not just of Chekhov but of Harold Pinter, who is an even better guide to Trump’s brutal relativism and canny opportunism. Pinter’s plays throw into relief the territorial nature of human beings — the way reality, both present and past, is a turf war in which the will to dominate supersedes all other considerations.
In Pinter’s “The Homecoming,” Lenny, meeting his sister-in-law for the first time, brags about assaulting a woman “who was falling apart with the pox.” “How did you know she was diseased?” a cool Ruth, refusing to be intimidated by this display of male dominance, inquires. “How did I know?” Lenny replies. “I decided she was.”
A political science course could be devised around Lenny’s “I decided she was.” The will to power is a talking game. Pinter understood as well as any modern playwright the weaponry of words in the battle of human relations. “The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear,” he shrewdly observed. “It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place.” (For a clumsy illustration of this quintessential Pinter insight, check out one of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s daily briefings.)
Trump’s no-holds-barred campaign should have prepared us for the absurdist drama he’s staging at the White House, but linear-minded people are easily overwhelmed by tactical incoherence. Disorder, fully intentional or not, is exhausting. When the networks on election night called Pennsylvania for Trump, I turned off the television and went to bed. Shaken by the prospect of a Trump presidency, I consoled myself with the thought that at least I had “King Lear” to retreat into. I’ve been working on a long essay about the nature of wisdom in a tragedy that privileges experience over other forms of knowledge, and I badly needed Shakespeare’s long view to pull me through.