Ideally, a polity will have not just a common understanding of what humans are, and are for, but also an accurate one; ideally its understanding of justice, as instantiated in its laws, will likewise be accurate, and its laws will be patterned after the natural law. The true political common good is the virtuous life of the people, pursued together, under the discipline of law that impresses justice in their souls.
That is not a thing that a family alone can do, any more than a family alone can live commodiously. We can get corn and lobster locally, at the lake house; we harmonize on Sondheim while washing dishes; we make and enforce rules for the kids. But for caviar and full-scale Broadway productions and the civil magistracy, we need to go back to the City. To be drawn up into the proper life of the polity, and finally to the political life of the Kingdom of God, is what completes the smaller and incomplete political life that we experience in our families and in smaller communities.
America is not a family; New York is not a family; the Empire is not a family. All scales of true polity are ikons of the Kingdom of God according to different manners; the imperial scale is an ikon of its grandeur, its magnificence, its universality. The Kingdom of God is not cozy.
In reality, despite our Enlightenment ideals, most of America’s military excursions haven’t passed the democratic test. Though “private interest” now refers to the profit of corporations instead of local lords, the line between private interest and public resources (soldiers and tax dollars) remains blurred. The distinction became functionally irrelevant during World War II, thanks to the top-secret Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. As Garry Wills writes in his book Bomb Power:
For the first time in our history, the president was given sole and unconstrained authority over all possible uses of the Bomb. All the preparations, protections, and auxiliary requirements for the Bomb’s use, including secrecy about the whole matter and a worldwide deployment of various means of delivery, launching by land, sea, air, or space – a vast network for the study, development, creation, storage, guarding, and updating of nuclear arsenals, along with an immense intelligence apparatus to ascertain conditions for the weapons’ maintenance and employment – all these were concentrated in the executive branch, immune from interference by the legislative or judicial branches. Every executive encroachment or abuse was liable to justification from this one supreme power.
Indeed, the creation of the bomb itself, Wills explains, necessitated a parallel, secret government that could draw on vast public and private resources well out of the watchful public eye. When the war eventually ended, this parallel infrastructure of national defense cannibalized our democratically controlled military, replacing it with the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address.
I was older than most people when I finally got into the Dead. But when I got into them, I really got into them. For me, the Dead belong in this strange category of American cultural effluvia that hide their genius behind middle-brow maximalism. The show 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' is in this category. And college football. So's the comedian Theo Von.
The ship is so gaudy and déclassé you doubt that it could be carrying precious cargo. But it is. And this kind of sentimental or tasteless bombast - horror movies, garage rock, etc. - has in many ways been the most interesting and valuable thing about American popular culture.
Dead lyricist Robert Hunter was a spokesman for this kind of profoundly silly, but occasionally just profound, strain in American culture. All of the classic songs he penned for albums like 'American Beauty' and 'Workingman's Dead' are just a touch too impish to stand next to the original border ballads or cowboy songs. They were always closer to suburban daydreams than mystic chants or the harrowing moans of Delta blues. But that's exactly what made them honest, the fact that they so openly appropriated so many familiar tropes for their own prankster purposes.
Because here we are in the suburbs. Daydreaming. Hacking away at irony like explorers looking for lost ruins of authenticity.
What is exciting about translation, then, is not the notion that it has delivered a hundred percent—something Schleiermacher would never have signed up to—or that the entire world of human feeling can be made available to us in our own idiom—a fantasy that will only induce complacency—but its encouragement to move toward, or at least become aware of, what we do not know; translation as a wake-up call, and an instrument to spur us to more effort, not to have us sit back and applaud another successful worldwide publishing phenomenon.
To close on a provocation, it’s perhaps worth observing that current enthusiasm for literary translation in the Anglo-Saxon world has come at the same time as a steep decline in language learning.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor