I am a sucker for what you might call political pathos. A large group gathered peacefully for a common purpose will reliably bring a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat. I’ve noticed the tendency for at least ten years. It’s a curious sensation: it’s longing, and happiness, and hope, but it’s mixed with a feeling of great loneliness and distrust: I mistrust the group and its aims, and I mistrust myself, and my own feelings. I feel like I want to be one with the group but I feel completely cut off on the other hand. There’s a certain exquisiteness, like a sensual tickle or a painful exercise session. But it’s a feeling I don’t like to sustain for too long.
I suppose I could trace it back to church meetings and religious summer camps from my childhood. But the occasion doesn’t have to be religious, or political: I also get it at concerts, at parties, even, in the right setting, at a lecture or discussion. And I don’t have to be present at an actual gathering either, nor do have to be in agreement with its purpose, I can even be revolted by it, and all the same I will be carried along, and left with an inner core of coldness and non-committal feelings. I nearly wept at the end of The Battle of Algiers each of the three times I saw it, and each time my feelings of ambivalence towards the movement and the events celebrated in it only increased: in the same proportion as my emotion. It’s as if I have the urge to leap into the sea, and I can only barely hold myself back. There is a roiling, tumbling chaos of water below me, and I want to dive in, even though I am fearful of and sure of being smashed and torn apart in it.
I felt it again today. Today the weather was strange, it was a double-minded Oregon day that didn’t know whether to storm or shine. There was hail, rain, snow, sleet, wind, and bright sunshine. You could be standing hunched over in a downpour in your doorway while the roof of your building behind was getting a light sprinkling; across the street you can see hail bouncing off the parked cars, and down the block, the sun is shining and people are walking their dogs and smiling at one another. It was also the Oregon kickoff meeting for the Obama campaign. I nearly didn’t go. If I hadn’t come up with such transparent excuses, I wouldn’t have gone. But I made it too easy for myself to see through, and I shamed myself into going. I showed up, I stood and nearly cried standing still, just seeing the crowd, maybe 700 people in all, more women than men and probably as many young as old. It was difficult to stay standing, watching alone, but something in me made me behave rudely to those who tried to speak to me. I think if I had talked to them I might have cried. All very strange emotions, but again, that underlying mistrust at the emotions I was feeling, and dislike of their power over me.
I don’t know how to deal with the idea that I might be a political person. All my life I haven’t been, I haven’t trusted it. I haven’t liked to think about politics, read about it, or discuss it. My brothers are the same way, as far as I can tell. There’s something about it in our family. And yet on the other hand, I feel like I am participating, to the extent that I was able, I was there in part, to do honor to the memory of my father; who is surely much of the reason we don’t like politics. It’s a complicated picture I don’t think I will be able to draw.
It’s complicated not least by my father’s conservatism, which he never wavered in. One of the only times I talked politics with him in the last few years, he defended Nixon, surveillance, and torture to me. I don’t believe Obama stands for anything that he would support. And yet I feel there’s something there in Obama’s campaign, in his rhetoric and the way he makes his appeals, that respects my father the way I respect him, like he would be willing to govern in my father’s name as well, not only in the name of his party and his voters and his prime constituencies. Who knows how far that feeling of mine is reflected in the reality: not me, not least because the reality is not there yet. But there’s something I can feel happening in me, the fear is ebbing. Who knows, maybe next week will find me knocking on the doors that I fled from this week.