Our Hardy Moment
January 11, 2017
If November 8, 2016, presented rational-minded Americans with their greatest fear, November 9th gave them ample opportunity to imprint to memory a metaphor for the shock of recognition. Mine that day was Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”—63 million people lining up with a stone in their hand.
Political analysts have struggled since the election to make a rational story out of irrational behavior, but it’s been hard for anyone to reconcile the choice of possible annihilation over whatever Trump supporters consider the status quo. They tell the camera “He will create jobs,” but that’s just code for “He will create chaos.” I can picture alumni of the pumped-up MAGA crowds welcoming a Trump world like Slim Pickens riding the nuclear bomb in Dr. Strangelove. But what about Hillary Clinton’s “everyday Americans,” the less zealous voters who tipped the scales for Trump? I keep picturing them standing in their everyday homes, lighting and flicking match after match just to see what might happen. This seems to capture both the boredom of waiting for white people’s change and the primitive urge to torch the village starting where you live.
As metaphor, “The Lottery” moved front and center because of what we’ve come to call the banality of evil. But over many days of trying to understand destructive primal instincts times 63 million, I found that another piece of literature captures the impulse more fully—the world of Egdon Heath that Thomas Hardy brought to life in The Return of the Native.
Maybe the connection arose because our period of national grieving coincided with the approach of Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere and an excuse for pagan revelry. Alongside the narrative of doomed desire in Hardy’s 1878 novel is a study of modernism’s encroaching shadow on a community bound by primitive rituals—bonfires, mummers’ plays, maypole dances, the making of wax effigies.
Or maybe it was because Hardy couldn’t seem to write a story that wasn’t pathologically sad. Determinism is the miserable word associated with his novels, where character after character is driven to self-destruction. Readers in the age of Clintonian democracy can be excused for thinking the determinism of a Trump world could never happen outside a nineteenth-century novel where the free-spirited heroine always dies.
Better still, maybe the association came from imagining millions of Red State voters as red people living on red earth. Hardy’s novel features a tradesman who travels the heath supplying farmers with a red mineral used for marking sheep. The dye has stained his skin so that he is literally red like the devil.
Under normal conditions, the cultural distance between the America of 2016 and Hardy’s nineteenth-century Dorsetshire would seem too vast to contemplate. But after November 8th, nothing was normal anymore.
The Return of the Native was published when Britain was the world’s most advanced industrial nation. Like Hardy’s other works, it hits the pain points in the transition from Victorian to modern—the Pandora’s Box of sexual politics, exploitation within an entrenched class system, loss of faith and despair before an indifferent universe.
Hardy has as much to say about the infertile and intractable Egdon Heath as he does about the story’s returning native, Clym Yeobright, or the tragic enchantress Eustacia Vye. With its ancient burial mound a constant reminder of mortality and lineage, the heath is steeped in folkways that Hardy doubts could coexist with modernity. Its denizens have no capacity to either embrace or defend against the “irrepressible New,” the economic forces beating at the door in even the most barren parts of the country.
The furze-covered heath creeps upon us like a fractured fairy tale, and yet it stands for something much greater than county or country. It is the dark and indifferent universe in which human life—regardless of the fixes of science—will carry on the cycles of birth and growth, fertility and reproduction, decay and death. John Bayley praised this power of Hardy to create a “climate of being.” The severity of the landscape forces conformity to the circular nature of time—its seasons and rhythms—which the laws of the Christian church complemented rather than disrupted. Enlightenment progress, on the other hand, is linear and veering ever upward, driving a wedge between people and this fundamental cognizance.
Americans’ relationship to the land was more fluid in the face of industrialization thanks to the reinvention myths of immigrants and homesteaders and the fact that we stole most of our real estate from its original owners. Still, the reach of unfettered capitalism in 1878 was no less threatening than in Hardy’s England. Both nations were mired in what is now called the Long Depression that began in 1873 and lasted until 1879. By the end of this economic contraction, it was becoming clear that economic cycles, not natural ones, are what Americans would live by as a multicultural tribe based on principles of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Even after the recession of 2008 jolted us out of our easy-credit coma, the Great Depression has remained our mythological lodestar. The 1930s were the crucible out of which emerged a new myth about hardship and reward that reconciled unfettered capitalism with an activist government.
With globalization and the steady decline of manufacturing jobs in the 1970s, white Americans began waiting for the corrective of their beloved myth to kick in. Instead they got technological change—the digital version of Hardy’s “irrepressible New”—at a breakneck pace. The economic bubbles flew by—as did the distant, no-conscript wars—but the $55-an-hour welding jobs never materialized. And the smartphone era only added brutal irony: to profit from its time- and hassle-reducing innovations, you needed to already have a job.
What we learned from Thomas Piketty and other economists in the aftermath of the Great Recession was that the up-and-up, Enlightenment-validating graphs of the postwar economy were an aberration and not the norm, that the economic cycles that stood as the modern proxy for the primitive ones of Egdon Heath had experienced an epic fail.
In 2016, white Americans were a people without religion or a common God. The activist government their grandparents had trusted in was now working only for outsiders and brown people. After putting their faith in Morning in America, they had been strung along by unfettered capitalism for two and a half decades until the sky went black in 2008. They were no longer being paid to make things but to provide services to Americans of every class and color, and their labor was being made redundant by automation. Their relatives in small towns were plagued by an epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction that was felling parents in minivans and destroying families. Worst of all, they were expected to take the blame for many decades of climate degradation that in no way benefited themselves—and that meant making economic sacrifices down the road.
Maybe the “nativist” sympathies that many Trump voters have been tagged with arose from a preternatural longing for Hardy’s ancient cycles as a way out of the hypocrisy of the Enlightenment graph. “Drain the swamp” speaks less to kicking certain people out than resolving the stagnation. You shake things up to get things moving, restore the rotation of the elemental cycle, even if you start at the death part, because the decay has gone on for too long and our national charter that freedom and equality are the means to boundless opportunity has betrayed us.
In 1878, Hardy’s novel reminded a nation in the midst of economic upheaval of the forces that shaped human life before God and the church. Paradoxically, the ancient heath is presented as both economically unsustainable and dangerously enticing. It had barely offered a living even in an entirely agrarian economy. By failing to develop beyond the primitive, its community is left behind by nineteenth-century progress. To make anything of yourself you needed to leave. Those who languished were doomed to listening to the sirens’ song—with the one exception of Diggory Venn, the red-stained peddler of reddle who manages to appear in scene after scene of the novel.
In his Red State incarnation, Diggory would be the dealer from Columbus or Detroit who drifts through Ohio counties via Route 23, just as Joel Achenbach sets the scene in his article for The Washington Post series “Sick and Dying in Small-Town America.” Achenbach narrows his lens to the small city of Chillicothe, classic Midwestern terrain near the Appalachian foothills and ancient Native American burial mounds. It is believed that the coils of the Serpent Mound in Adams County are aligned to the two solstice and two equinox events each year.
This is the land of both prehistoric Americans and the pill mills that the government began cracking down on in 2012. Since then, the community has seen a surge in overdoses from heroin and fentanyl. Chillicothe’s economy is not terrible—there’s a paper mill that’s managed to survive—but the despair and hopelessness are outsize. Trump’s margins over Mitt Romney’s in 2012 were highest in counties with higher than average drug, alcohol, and suicide mortality rates. He won 61 percent of the vote in Ross County.
What you notice in photographs accompanying the Post article—groups of women sitting on a stoop and a family arrayed on a porch—is the health of the land in the background. At least that’s what I noticed because this verdant earth looks nothing like Dorothea Lange’s images of the dust bowl, where impoverished families waited out the misery of nature’s wrath with similar expressions of consternation. You can see in these modern tableaux a massive disconnect between the land and its people’s problems. And yet these bleak faces seem as tragically tied to their home county as the denizens of Egdon Heath. Both communities are waiting for something big and restorative that they can’t even visualize.
“Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something,” Hardy says of the heath, “but it had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis—the final overthrow.”
“The final overthrow” could be the title for Book 1 of the Trump ascendancy. Book 1 of Hardy’s novel takes place on the bonfire night of November 5, when furze-cutters have gathered their produce into faggots that they carry impaled on long stakes and will soon set ablaze. Hardy explains that lighting a fire in November “indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, ‘Let there be light.’ ”
Much has been made of Donald Trump’s compulsion to brazenly call out his enemies for committing whatever transgression he has just been caught committing. In his inaugural speech, he mentions “American carnage” and that “we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.” And that is exactly what he intends to bring to this country: carnage and blood.
Hardy’s depiction of the violence of bonfires uncannily captures the yearning for a Reichstag moment among Trump’s alt-right base: “It seemed as if the bonfire-makers were standing in some radiant upper story of the world, detached from and independent of the dark stretches below. The heath down there was now a vast abyss, and no longer a continuation of what they stood on; for their eyes, adapted to the blaze, could see nothing of the deeps beyond its influence.”
We know they’re coming, Trump’s bonfire-makers. It doesn’t matter whether he fails to produce the rabbit from the hat or turns the country into Pottersville. His followers don’t expect him to do anything other than set in motion the long-awaited unwinding. Black chaos comes. §