Brande's Wake Up and Live—the movie

[Writer and editor Dorothea Brande’s Wake Up and Live (reviewed)—the movie.]

A writer’s eternal questions amidst America’s ugly political blip

Standing in my father’s library as a teenager, I opened Dorothea Brande’s slender 1934 book Becoming a Writer. I read:

Do you believe in God? Under what aspect (Hardy’s “President of the Immortals,” Wells’s “emerging God”?)

Do you believe in free will or are you a determinist? . . .

Do you think the comment “It will all be the same in a hundred years” is profound, shallow, true or false?

Dorothea Brande-Becoming a Writer

Suffice it to say, these and other questions in her quaint quiz stumped me as a kid. And not just because her examples were, even then, dated. But Brande (1893–1948) gave me the sense that knowing or groping toward Truth is pretty much writers’ job description. This starts as personal truth, offered to all to test against theirs. Trying to figure out bedrock truths appears to be simply a human task.

A friend, recalling my rookie reporter apprenticeship under his wing 36 years ago, called bullshit on such assertions.

“It’s so you,” he said, after reading a draft of this post. “It reminds me of several conversations we had, with you tortured by the Meaning of Life and humanity’s Big Questions and my saying why should it have meaning? I was more concerned about whether the fish were biting or whether there was good barbecue or beer somewhere.”

Okay, I’ve got an itch, hard to scratch. Yet I know my mentor’s method is to exaggerate his way to truth. I’m a lot older now, and, while still puzzled, do finally know one or two things for sure.

A comfort of aging? Maybe, given a recent realization: older folks own the world, on paper, but it really belongs to the young. Those starting out, coming up, in love. I was proud of that bit of wisdom until, on reflection, it sounded like I stole it from 1931’s bittersweet song “As Time Goes By.”

C’est la vie. The fundamental things do apply. What are they?

Community vs. the clan in 2016’s presidential primaries

Modernity versus tribalism. That’s what this has come down to. Already the conflict roiling swaths of the world, it’s what has turned this campaign season vulgar and violent.

Modernity’s ideals include diversity and tolerance. Tribalism fears differences, and its hallmark response toward the Other is kneejerk rejection. Modernity is not overtly religious, though I sense in its belief in human nature and human progress a spiritual seed. Politics and religion, at their core, share a concern with community. And of course, like free societies, all major religions—including Islam—preach tolerance. A pagan, in contrast, is anyone or any group that will not grant you their God. It’s true that when the Jews discovered God some 3,000 years ago, God was theirs and theirs alone—an angry parent sore angry at his stiff-necked offspring. But by removing God from a particular shrine or mountaintop and lofting him into the sky, they effectively made their God available to all.

As humans gradually threw off despotic leaders who sought to usurp religion’s power, religion itself moved steadily inward. In my view, it draws ever closer to to the animating mystery at its core: human goodness. What explains it? How can we nurture it?

Surely this conundrum explains religion’s reliance on metaphor. Surely it explains Judaism’s emphasis on learning. And Donald Trump is Exhibit A for why humans must grow. Learning—maybe along with some sort of spiritual practice that disciplines the ego—fosters wider, humane values. Knowledge gives you a place to stand and a means of testing rhetoric against history and literature and your sense of reality. For writers, who in one way or another profess or portray their take on human nature, learning what they believe and why seems especially essential. But, as I say, that’s just going pro with humans’ basic task.

Sober, humble leaders help people, en masse, achieve wisdom, or act on theirs. Maybe that’s because great leaders receive the group’s collective wisdom. The leader as signal receiver and servant. Does this model describe Donald Trump and his ilk?

Donald Trump’s angry cry for love

 We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

—the close of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

Donald Trump

Though he seems an intellectual and emotional mess, how well Trump understands our primate substrate. Very old, very deep, buried by more evolved emotions, under great stress the Machiavellian, clannish, pagan ape within us emerges.

Even with his short fingers, Trump can reach and punch that small, deep vestige. He’s unsound intellectually, and a craven liar, but he’s not stupid. Contrast Trump’s sly, cynical approach to politics with Abraham Lincoln’s. Lincoln was a tough politician, a fierce campaigner, but his knowledge of people and our republic still resonates. At any rate, he rose in office. In his ultimate test, fueled and fed by Shakespearean and biblical wisdom and by Enlightenment ideals, Lincoln led America through its greatest test by appealing to our better nature.

The Enlightenment gave rise to America’s still-revolutionary Constitution. What massive irony in seeing Trump and others, each the spawn of immigrants, attack immigrants in our nation of immigrants. When cheap and illegal immigrant labor forms the base of Trump’s own gaudy enterprises. When immigrants are not just part of our community, they are our community. Perhaps excepting Native Americans, immigrants are America. This attack has worked, to an extent, because so many Americans are suffering economically. They’re angry and scared. By appealing to and stoking that, a politician unleashes primitive, violent, tribal forces.

One of the perplexing issues raised by Trump’s rise has been whether it matters that his rhetoric inflames our worst qualities because he doesn’t mean what he says. Many think he’ll be different if elected. He has admitted that, for him, lying to get elected defines politics. And certainly his record, before the current campaign, resembles that of a pragmatic political moderate—maybe even one with a mildly progressive bent. Neither his businesses nor his current policies withstand scrutiny, however, except as evidence of Trump as a needy, egotistical self-serving man. He’s made a fortune, of course, in dens of gambling that exploit other humans’ vanity.

In the end what surely will inoculate America against Trump and other runts are Lincoln’s angels—humans’ bone-deep, bred-in values of morality and justice. At least Trump’s got us talking about the beliefs that bind us. Beliefs sensed in our nature, nurtured in study, tested in conflict. These ideals form the face of modernity. They’re what already make America great.

[Louis Armstrong & Nat King Cole perform “As Time Goes By”—a classic version.]

It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.

—“As Time Goes By,” words and lyrics by Herman Hupfeld, made famous in Casablanca.


  • J.V. Wylie says:

    This is hands down the most heartfelt, authentic response to the Trump phenomenon that I have read, and I am deeply moved by it. Oh that our leaders would be poets! I place that conclusion to Lincoln’s first inaugural as my favorite sentence in American letters. Although he had help from Seward, he was the one who altered into greatness. The other clause I love: …to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land…What a contrast! And that song…so reassuring!
    Thank you Richard.

  • Dear Richard, You say that a friend of yours found your attachment to Dorothea Brande’s book typical of you. In the few short years that I have been reading your posts and profiting from their deep humanity and wisdom, I would say that it seems to me typical of you to try to test something (or someone, like Trump, for example) on your own pulses, to subject them to a humanitarian test, in an effort to understand them. To me, Trump is by contrast evidence of all that is worst in the American psyche, not just evidence that people are going broke and getting scared, but that they are at heart illogical and full of the fires of hatred that can be stoked by any charlatan who clues in to them. Your approach to the effort to live in this U.S. is to try to understand the dilemma and reason your way out of it, with a deep faith that it can be done. Hence your reference to Lincoln. While I hope you’re right, I feel deep despair and sadness at this year’s events, and I’m sorry to say that I lack your faith, or at least I’m so apprehensive about the turn-out of the election that it obscures whatever hope I may have. But stay as you are, of course, because when the tides begin to turn and things are becoming less adversarial and mean, you are the sort of leader we will need to look to, not to people like me, who feel paralyzed by grief and fear.

    • Victoria, thank you for your kind words. I too am upset, puzzled, and even at times scared by our current politics and what they represent. But I also believe, and must believe, that’s a blip. There’s our national history and ideals, our checks and balances, our forward progress despite the obstructionism.

      The only thing I can figure is that the Republicans are flaming out, and a better party will emerge, purged of its extremist elements. But where will those rageful people go, where will the rage go? I wish I knew. I fear that, with the furious pace of change, including the spread of progressive ideals (marriage equality, diversity), we are in for a long period—maybe for the rest of our lives—in which rage continues. However, with better economic prosperity the numbers willing to vote for Trumps will surely drop. I wonder, too, if conflicts and problems loom larger than they are when viewed up close. At the macro level, the world is safer and less at war than at any time. But tell that to the Syrian refugees . . .

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