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Presentation by Chrysovalantis Kampragkos 17/11/2009
HISTORICAL TIMELINE/ BACKGROUND 1942-1945: Manhattan Project, the development of US atomic bomb. 1944-1948: Spread and establishment of socialism in Eastern Europe. 1946-1953: Indochina War (Viet Minh against France), communist and national liberation revolts in Malay, Indonesia, Kenya (the Mau Mau). 1948: After its liberation from the Japanese, Korea is divided on the 38 th Parallel in the Republic of Korea (South Korea, governed by the anti-communist Syngman Rhee) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea, controlled by thencommunist Workers’ Party of Korea’s secretary Kim Il-sung). September 1949: The Communist Party of China (through the People’s Liberation Army) defeats Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party, led by generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and proclaims the People’s Republic of China, and drives the nationalists to Formosa island (Taiwan; mentioned in the novel by Nixon as “mainland China”). 29/8/1949: the Soviet Union makes its first atomic test 25/6/1950: North Korea invades South Korea. Declaration of the Korean War, with Soviet Union and China supporting the northerners. The UN invades North Korea. 1950: Escalation of the Red Scare, controlled by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Alger Hiss is convicted for being a Soviet spy. Klaus Fuchs is convicted of stealing atomic secrets from the US and England. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are arrested and accused of passing atomic information to Soviet Union. 1952: Dwight Eisenhower defeats Adlai Stevenson in the American presidential elections. 5/3/1953: Stalin dies. Gradually the Soviet Union abandons Marxist-Leninism, advocates peaceful co-existence with capitalism, denounces violent revolutions, and becomes itself an imperialist power, suppressing uprisings in East Germany (1953), Hungary and Poland (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). 19/6/1953: The Rosenbergs are executed at Sing Sing Prison. Three electrocutions needed for Ethel Rosenberg to die. 27/7/1953: The Korean War ends with an armistice restoring the original 38th Parallel borders and creating the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Publication history The novel was ready for publication in 1976, America’s bicentennial. Its thematic content made it unsuitable for publication that year. The book was rejected by maybe fifteen publishers, who feared that the explicit political comments made in it would make a bad name for the publishers. There were even pressures to Coover remove living politicians from the plot. It was eventually released in late 1977, and publishers soon removed it from the market in order to avoid legal suits. They even removed it from their catalogues, making it very difficult to find and read. It was to be a movie by Terry Gilliam with Bill Murray as Nixon, Ed Harris as Eisenhower, John Goodman as the voice of animated Uncle Sam. It was cancelled during postproduction for its excessive use of violence, obscene language and sexuality. The situation with the film version is very fitting to the novel’s history. KEY ISSUES/ THINGS TO CONSIDER Writing Style/ Literary Genre
Coover’s writing style is very energetic and dense throughout the novel. In my opinion, the writing style has a very journalistic feel to it, which makes the novel a bit familiar to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. By journalistic I mean that in the case of the one narrative technique in the novel (omniscient narrator) there is narration of events on-the-minute, as if the narrator is on a special news report, describing events that are happening right now. There are two reasons, in my opinion, why Coover writes in this way. The first is to capture faithfully the spirit and atmosphere of the period, the way American government and capital presented facts and events and manipulating the case in order to gain the legitimacy of the public for their actions. One example is when Coover describes the heavy pressure Irving Saypol put on Harry Gold and David Greenglass to get a confession out of them in a way that captures the pressure and the panic which characterized the era, with a long sentence without full stop (121). Coover also uses that dense writing style, full of pop culture references, allusions to songs, artists, and historical events, creation of songs, myths, and poems, to show the attempt of the American status quo to diffuse a sense of a culture that is made at the moment, a culture that makes a nation united against Communists, a culture that through the quick alteration of images and figures saturates the critical perception of the public and invades the consciousness. It is an indication of the postmodern symptoms of the conflation of the cultural and the real, of the excessive growth of the cultural sphere, and of the fact that culture has become man’s second nature (as Jameson put it). Categorizing The Public Burning we can say that it is a work of metafiction. The writing style becomes itself a subject in the novel. Coover’s rapid writing pace, when considered along the omniscient narrator, is an indication of what the American experience is (or what it is presented to be, anyway). The form becomes part of the fictional aspect of the novel. Coover’s goal by writing metafiction is to expand the consciousness of the reader, opposing what is mediated and controlled by the politicians. Irony plays a very important role in the book and in how several cultural myths and icons of America are portrayed by Coover. Coover uses irony against mainstream culture to show that truth is not what is presented as real by those in power, but is a subjective thing. His goal is to awake the reader and see things from a distance, not through her position within American culture. Coover makes extensive use of myths and popular culture. He considers popular (mass) culture as a significantly disorientating element of contemporary society; he uses this culture in order to attack it, to prevent it from colonizing the collective public’s consciousness. This becomes especially evident in the events in Times Square, before the execution of the Rosenbergs, where a carnival show is staged to celebrate the magnificence of American culture and the most important figures of American entertainment industry and politics are parading in front of a public engaging in a feast. Coover seems to disagree with Bakhtin’s view of the carnival as liberating people from bourgeois lifestyles. In The Public Burning, Coover shows that there is a huge gap between pop culture and folk culture; in the Times Square the carnival is taken out of its folk context and attached to mass culture, it is staged by the powerful in order to enslave the people. Indeed, although the people in Times Square engage in orgies, they are not liberated; Nixon’s own humiliation and defilement is a step to his rise in power. Coover avoids showing his own politics in the novel, because he would then be didactic. He lets people discover reality by themselves. This is similar to Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect), according to which the actor appears strange to his character in order to help the audience becomes critical observers.
This device was also used in dystopian fiction to describe a society different from the one thereader lives in in a way that shows that the book is actually about the present society. The Publc Burning, despite referring to society 25 years before its publication, can actually function as an allusion of certain events happening during the decade it was published, and a foreshadowing of events to come. Notto mention the obvious referrences to Nixon’s presidency and the Watergate scandal, we can notice the reintroduction of witchhunts against Communism also emerging in the 1970s as witchunts against homosexuals because of AIDS, and many years later as anti-islamism. This means that this country has a tendency for finding scapegoats for social problems. In the 70s there was also the reemergence of a right-wing evangelical Christianity, with Hal Lindsey and nuclear dispensationalism picturing Russians and liberals as the devil, with Billy Graham (sometimes referred to in the novel) and his relationship with Nixon, and the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter, who presented himself as a born-again Christian. Through the ways Coover describes the antagonism between Soviet Union and America, we can also trace the foreshadowing of an new era of intensity in the Cold War, with the involvement of Cuba in Angola’ national liberation and civil war, the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. However, all these do not mean that there are no dangers in metafiction. Encouraging the individual to cut off from popular culture is also to encourage her to adopt a solipsistic attitude, without providing her with an analytical method of both explaining the world and changing it (remember Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”). While this is not specifically Coover’s fault, he makes the whole book and its processes seem like an intellectual revolt, the sole goal of which is its own existence and interpretation of events, because any further argument or political siding would seem for Coover ideological blindness. The preoccupation of Coover with the idea that all culture is hollow and that everything is mediated by those in power leads him to the conclusion that history does not actually exist, it is a fabrication. Culture What we see in The Public Burning is how a culture is employed in order to create national unity beyond class divisions. Coover understands the power of cultural myths in constructing consciousness and mediating reality, which is also an indication of their tyrannical domination. Coover’s goal is to clear culture of its mythical origins, to show that it is a human construct. Especially in the case of the Phantom, Coover shows that American capital actually needed the existence of Phantom. His existence is validated by the creation of a myth around him, by the repetition of its name and the ritualization of the antagonism between him and Uncle Sam. The existence of Phantom is a parody of the myth that America is the vanguard of freedom in the world. We see that American culture relies a lot on metaphysical explanation of events, creating delusions of individual success to people, like Nixon’s belief in the American dream, when he says that although Julius Rosenberg’s life was within the Horatio Alger pattern of rags-to-riches, however “somehow something became wrong. The boat did not come in. The rich patron with the sweet tooth did not materialize” (304), as if success comes as a deus ex machina. Coover uses metafiction to show the grip cultural forces have on people, how they bind the public. The power of culture accounts for lack of character and plot development (Nixon is a character bound in a game of political antagonism and of serving capitalist interests) and the ever-presence of violence and horror.
Apart from being a method of control and propaganda, the adoption of culture also turns into commodity fetishism. Betty Crocker, a fictional persona of General Mills food products, prepares a table in Times Square (453). This is a cultural symbol of both feminine stereotypes and consumerism. The Eisenhopper is another element of cultural commodity fetishism. The fact that culture is becoming another commodity mediating the spectator’s experiences has grotesque implications. The children are themselves part of the mob in the Rosenbergs’ executions and their boredom and indifference after Julius’s electrocution: “The best index of this is the behavior of all the children out front: fascinated by the first two jolts, they are now bored by the third; they squirm in their seats as Julius’s body whips and snaps in its bonds, covering up their ears against the crackling whine, asking ‘What’s history?’ and complaining that they want to go home or go see Mickey Mouse or use the toilet” (510). Specific uses of popular/ folklore culture elements are indications for the social values of Americans, the dark and hidden sides of American culture. The omniscient narrator says that “[s]ome have contended that it was America’s love of pie-throwing that led the nation to develop the atomic bomb” (452). The use of humor within songs and images shows how unhumorous American humor actually is, since it leads people to become a mob in the persecution of Communists (“EVERYTHING IS FUNNY AS LONG AS IT IS HAPPENING TO SOMEBODY ELSE!”-399, “‘Fantastic! Where the hell does Joe dig up these guys?’ ‘You gotta admit it, it’s the best show in town!”56). One example is the song “Roll Your Leg Over”: I wish little girls were all Jews from the slums And I were the Judge, I’d blister their bums! Oh roll your leg over…!” (361). Coover implies that there is nothing positive or wise within popular culture, because it creates certain hostile values through its songs, jokes and myths (the song “Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Traitors to the U.S.A., Must Die,” 402). The wit and fun Uncle Sam radiates is such a case, because behind his entertaining figure he is evil and manipulating.. Uncle Sam’s vocabulary resembles western and frontier folklore, especially in the way he shows off and in how hyperbolically he describes his enemy, the Phantom (“Pure sorcery and dangerous as a Massassip alligator with a tapeworm! They call him Sudden Death and General Desolation, half cousin to the cholera and godfather of the Apocalypse”-335). His exaggerated descriptions create a feeling of fear for the Phantom, who is described like the Indians were described in western folklore. Uncle Sam goes from “skinning the savages and backwoods scavengers” to “propagating the Doctrine of Self-Determination and Free Will” (8). This shows a continuity and diachronicity in American culture and politics, evident in the depictions of their non-capitalist enemies as obstacles to the expansion of American capital, either westward (Indians) or worldwide (the Soviet Union and the national liberation movements). American culture entails a spirit of competition which is what makes capital move: a Freeman, contendin’ for Liberty on his own ground, can outrun, out-drink […] any yaller, brown, red, black, or white thing in the shape of human” 8). The dark humor with which competition and antagonism is passed for normal serves as justification for American interventionism through war in promoting freedom; an interventionism for which they accuse Communists of. The setting of Rosenbergs’ executions is a parade and a carnival of American culture and the entertainment industry. There is an Entertaining Committee, directed by film producer Cecil B. De Mille, to organize the show. Every figure of the entertainment industry and every cultural symbol is there to show to the people how fabulous and well-functioning the American society is (“so starry bright is the Great White Way. It’s a real Old Glory blowout”-398), so that the nation overcomes its class divisions to
celebrate its unification against the common enemy: “everybody jamming up together, old and young, great and small, of all creeds, colors and sexes […] ―it’s an ingathering of monumental proportions, which only the miracle of Times Square could contain” (355). The glorious times of the American history are played in stage, people dress like historical figures and all the American presidents are passing in front of the public (422-425). Nixon’s character The Public Burning’s Nixon is a very rich character. He studies everything very closely, because he understands that this case can provide him with a political future (“I took out an index card and made a note. On the bottom, I wrote: START THE 1954 CAMPAIGN NOW!”-59). He wants to get a confession from Ethel to build up his own presidency. He is always suspicious of other politicians and the media, he thinks that the media are always attacking him and making smear campaigns against him (269, “if I continued to attack the Communists and crooks in this government, they would try to smear me”-307). He uses appearance to win votes, comparing himself to Lincoln and Grant. There is a discrepancy between his closeted personal life and his political appearance. By making him masturbating for Ethel, Coover wants to subvert the image of middle class respectability Nixon used in order to win votes. The pants-down incident is indicative of the values passed as normal in American society and their consequences. Although Nixon is momentarily humiliated by the public, he manages to divert attention by demagogy. That he gains control for the crowd and makes people drop pants for America is indicative of how gullible, but more importantly vulnerable, Americans can be. Also, the fact that he is raped by Uncle Sam shows that he himself as a political puppet of capitalism is vulnerable to the interest and working of capital, which revels in dehumanizing. That in the end he says that he loves Uncle Sam shows that Coover believes there is no way to fix such situations. Even that his wife Pat punishes him by leaving him out of the room works for capitalism, since Uncle Sam finds him and buggers him, making him his Incarnation. The same happens with Ethel: even though she manages to fool him into believing that she fell in love with him and humiliates him by writing “I AM A SCAMP” on his ass, it is another event that Nixon uses to manipulate the audience. All these things show how politicians (Nixon in particular) and capital itself can use almost everything for their own purposes. When Nixon thinks he is in love with Ethel, he actually turns her into a sexual object (“Jewish girls have no religious restrictions against having…doing…going all the way”-318, “[t]he real Ethel Greenglass, childlike and exquisitely lovely―like Audrey Hepburn, I thought, whom I’d just seen on the cover of some magazine, though Ethel’s bottom was softer”-439) he wants to win, to dominate, because he sees her through his own culture, not through the class context and the ideas of Marxists. Nixon’s humiliation and stupidity in the pantsdown scene is what actually will help him become President in 1968 (as the Checkers speech saves his ass politically). When Uncle Sam finds him at home, he says “you been ee-LECK-ted!” (530). Coover constructs this situation to show the shallowness and lack of memory the American public has. Nixon’s humiliation is only momentary. Coover wanted it to be momentary to show the vulnerability of the society and the power relations between the people and politicians/ capital. It is not simply a statement that Americans are gullible (as Europeans tend to think). It shows that in a system of class oppression, capitalism and its flunkeys want the people to be humiliated.
TIME the National Poet Laureate TIME is of course an allusion to Time magazine, as well as his brother and sister LIFE (photojournalist magazine) and FORTUNE (business magazine). They are all children of Mother Luce, who in reality is Henry Luce, owner of the magazines, Republican member and fervent anti-communist. TIME’s poems are poetic renditions of news reports from Time magazine. Coover uses this figure to show how much delusional the public can get into believing that a magazine can actually be a person and to show how much art and journalism are colonized by capitalism for propaganda: “He would argue that objectivity is an illusion, ‘a fantastic claim’ […], and as an ideal perhaps even immoral, that only through the frankly biased and distorting lens of art is any real grasp of the facts―not to mention Ultimate Truth―even remotely possible” (320). TIME’s aspiration of becoming Poet Laureate of the World is a satire of capitalist aspirations of market expansion (322). It is also an indication that bourgeois democracy is a myth, since capitalism can support fascist regimes and racism if these ideologies can serve its interests on a short term (TIME “flirting at the time with the far right, supporting Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy […] smearing Jews and Socialists”-327). Relation to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four The novel depicts an Orwellian society living in panic of Communist subversion, in the beginnings of the Cold War. McCarthy’s Red Scare creates a state of surveillance and security, a feeling that everyone is a Communist (“[t]hese latter [signs] were crudely lettered compared to the handsomely printed pro-Rosenberg signs, but at least they bespoke a genuine sentiment. The professionally manufactured pro-Rosenberg propaganda just reinforces the suspicion of conspiracy” (341), and an atomic spy for the Soviet Union. Nixon accuses the journalists of being “dupes of the Phantom” (274). It sometimes reaches the point of delusion that the Phantom himself comes to kill Americans, like when Nixon is in the cab and thinks the cab driver is Phantom himself (273). This suspicion extends also between politicians. McCarthy seeks to find conspirators in all directions: ‘“I’m not retiring from the field of exposing leftwingers, New Dealers, radicals and pinkos, egg-sucking phony liberals, Communists and queers!” […] Promising the revelation of ‘a conspiracy of infamy so black’” (461). Also, in the end of the novel after Nixon is buggered by Uncle Sam he says “I…I love you Uncle Sam!” (534). This reminds of the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, after Winston Smith is tortured and converted by the Big Brother: “But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” Fabrication of the Rosenbergs’ case Coover does not concentrate on whether the Rosenbergs spied for the Soviet Union or not, and does not care about the presentation as martyrs. He cares about the ways American politicians used them to create a certain political and cultural climate against Communism. He explicitly shows that the Rosenbergs case had a great level of myth around it, so that many factions (politicians, capital, the FBI) could use it for their own purposes. As a result of the Rosenbergs’ arrest “[t]he FBI is getting its biggest headlines since the vintage years of the 1930s” (19). The way Coover presents the legal treatment of Rosenbergs indicates his belief that myths dominate reality and that the fantastic merges with the real. Justice William Douglas, with his decision to granting a stay to Rosenbergs is accused of “nullif[ying] over two years of careful preparations, over two years of exemplary Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence and litugy”
(65). Their execution was a process of ideology, not punishment per se, since there are lawyers “shouting disruptive slogans like ‘No Secret to the A-Bomb!’ and ‘They were convicted by the atmosphere and not by the evidence!’” (464). A political performance needed for the creation of a Cold War ideology, since there was no actual secret to the creation of the atomic bomb. Nixon presents the Rosenbergs as performers, in order to obscure the political significance they tried to give to their deaths. Coover also shows that there was a metaphysical element in their trial, since there was no concrete evidence for their guilt (“it was strong evidence that Rosenberg was not involved”-125), but was based on the belief that they did commit espionage. That the FBI could draw supposed evidence from every impossible source is satirized when Nixon tries to find a name starting by O, to complete the SORRY acronym formed by the names of the convicted spies (114). The trial itself was a hoax and a product of propaganda and Nixon confesses that: “every juror at the Easter Trial had had to swear under oath that he’d give the sme weight to testimony of either an FBI agent or a member of the Communist Party. Of course this was bullshit, you couldn’t find twelve decent Americans who’d believe a Commie as easily as a G-man” (368). Therefore, the Rosenbergs were executed not for penal reasons but for political ones (“[t]here are reasons for this: theatrical, political, whimsical”-3). American capital and state wanted scapegoats because they were afraid of the spread of Communism (victory of revolution in China, revolts in Inochina, establishment of socialism in Eastern Europe, national liberation movements in Asia and Africa), to show that the state apparatus was still well-oiled (“there’s a need for distractions”-4). Thus, they created an anti-Communist culture and myth of Communist spies taking over America. The public, as well, needed a scapegoat because their culture became their second self, and although most of the population were workers, they believed in the illusion of social mobility and had a petty-bourgeois consciousness. It is said that “such a communal pageant is just what the troubled nation needs right now to renew its sinking spirit” (4). The embourgeoisement of the working class seemed very American, so Americans developed an extreme form of patriotism which made them blind to the horrors of capitalism. Politicians’ manoeuvres and antagonisms Politicans are presented throughout the novel as opportunistic and antagonistic to each other. They do not hesitate resorting to outright fascism and racial hatred in order to achieve their goals: They speechify, do not engage in dialogue (when Eisenhower ignores Ethel’s appeals in Intermezzo II). That the public knows about Nixon’s ridiculousness and his pretentiousness is a sign of intra-political antagonisms (“the Farting Quaker”). The media are part of this antagonism, since they are controlled by political factions of the American two-party system, and they attack the politicians of the opposite party (“[t]he only reason he’d [Jack Kennedy] beat Lodge out of his Senate seat was because his old man had bought off the pro-Lodge Boston Post with half a million dollars”-344), even by using derogatory language (the journalists making fun of Nixon when he goes out of the can with horse shit on his shoes, 275). That scandals emerge in the public view (“RICH MEN’S TRUST FUND KEEPS NIXON IN STYLE FAR BEYOND HIS SALARY,” 307) is not a sign that capital is simulating them, in order to keep people pacified, as Baudrillard said. Scandals become known because there are intra-capitalist/ political antagonisms between who will be in power and in administration of capital. Nixon, in particular, is both the agent (he uses the cancer-ridden Bob Taft to get media attention-47; “I gave Voorhis no quarter, for example, when I beat him for his seat in Congress in 1946; I called him
a puppet of the Communists, hit him with dirty broadsides, anonymous phone calls, the whole lot, and if I hadn’t played it that way I wouldn’t be where I was now”-49) and victim (“‘I say, let’s dump the sonuvabitch! Nobody likes him anyway, he just drags us all down!”-453) of political manoeuvres. Justice William Douglas is also a victim of political antagonism, because after delaying the executions he is dragged at Times Square “for a ‘spontaneous’ public spanking’” (426). Coover implies that it is not a problem of government that America is such an oppressive society; it is a problem of the political system in general, since he puts equal blame on the Republican government and the Democrats, who also participate in the national feast (“most of the Republican and Democratic parties surge around Joe to get a piece of History”-17, “The Democrats’ mascot donkey comes trailing behind, evidently excited by all this patriotic brouhaha”-457) Religion The slogan “LET THE CHURCH SPEAK UP FOR CAPITALISM” (105) is indicative of the relationship between religion and class oppression. The execution site/ carnival is like a place where the sacred and the profane are metaphysically merging: “[I]t’s as though it’s all coming together here tonight in a magical fusion, the world of the sacred locking onto the world of the profane” (416). On the one hand we have prayers and fundamentalist religious preachers (415) and on the other hand “[t]eetotalers elbow frantically toward the bars, shy clerks pinch bottoms and make naughty remarks” (357). The execution of the Rosenbergs is a public religious spectacle, an evidence of American Civil Religion. It is a parody of purification. Americans think that by executing the Rosenbergs, they are performing an exorcism (3). American Civil Religion plays a great role in the novel. The Incarnation is the most important element of civil religion, since it is presented as a religious mystery, in which Uncle Sam is God, and the respective President his Son on earth. In his public address, Eisenhower says that “our civilization and our form of government is deeply imbedded in a religious faith. Indeed, those men felt that unless we recognized that relationship between our form of government and religious faith, that form of government made no sense!” (151, italics in the original). This means that if American did not believe in certain cultural legends, for example the battle between Uncle Sam and Phantom, if they did not believe in Phantom’s existence, then Uncle Sam would not exist either, and therefore a whole culture that sustains capitalism would collapse. As Nixon says, “[n]ot that Uncle Sam was a secularist―how could he be? He was Uncle Sam after all. Faith was essential to the Incarnation, it wouldn’t come off without it” (345). Thus, the American state constructed and imposed the culture that pervades American society; it was a result of objective workings within the society. American civil religion is needed by capital and the people in order to feel a sense of purpose in a world of destruction (America as the city upon the hill) and to feel they are inside a national community, and they have to find scapegoats to sacrifice for the lack of the things they want. The American civil religion of Coover’s novel does not consist anymore only of politicians though; in the Times Square, every cultural symbol and star of the entertainment industry becomes part of this religion, because the entertainment industry is of course big business for capital (Walt Disney and his figures The extent to which Americans have been bombarded with anti-communist propaganda leads them to a return to the age of Puritan superstition. There is one sign reading “ETHEL ROSENBERG BEWITCHED MY BABY” (287). While this may
seem funny and ironic, it nevertheless is an indication of the barbarism and mystification capitalism leads into. the witch-hunt and the burning of Communists is a sign of that. The most obvious example of the superstitions Americans are led into is the blackout at Times Square, when “[i]n the nighttime of the people, everything is moving and there is nothing to grab hold of” (487). People think that the Phantom killed Uncle Sam, that demons in the disguise of Bolsheviks, creeping socialists, Stalin’s moustache, abolitionists, Indians, foreigners, “existentialists, cancer, Pusan whores and tortured truths” are devouring them and begging God to “BRING BACK THE LIGHT” (488, 489). The discourse that capitalism uses against Communism Coover presents various ways in which Americans accuse Communists in an ironic way to show that whenever it serves their interest they adopt the same discourse they use against their enemies. Americans in The Public Burning present a belief system according to which a free world can exist only freely of ideology and imposed ideas, since the values of the American system are self-evident (Declaration of Independence). Communists on the other hand are inauthentic because they believe in a historical analysis of society, thus they are hollow and without self. On the one hand Nixon says that the Rosenbergs are just performing when they write letters to each other, that they are like soap opera, and that they do not truly love each other, but on the other hand, when he goes to save Ethel he is like soap opera himself (“it’s you I care about, can’t you see that?”-433-435). Traditionally, capitalist countries have accused Stalin and Mao of imposing a cult of personality. In The Public Burning, Coover shows that Americans have done just the same thing, from General McArthur “who is widely reported to be ‘the greatest man alive’” (21) to “Boy Judge” Irving Kaufmann, who is glorified as a prodigy. Americans accuse the Soviet Union of imposing their ideology through violence, while they themselves propagandize that freedom and enlightenment comes through power and nuclear weapons (493). While American politicians in the novel praise the freedom-loving East German workers, and support the self-determination of nations, they oppose “[t]he Phantomized Guatemalan regime [which] seizes lands belonging to Uncle Sam’s Fruit Company, [and] redistributes them to greed y and incompetent peasants,” and the rebellious “blacks in Kenya, Northern Rodesia, and South Africa” (37). Nixon says that he will help the world become free by getting a confession through Ethel, but only if this goes hand in hand with his own political aspirations: “Let’s face it, the survival of the whole fucking world depended on us, and I was the only guy in the country who could make it work. […] I saw statues of myself in Berlin, in Seoul, in Prague, Peking, and Peoria” (371). When he decides to save the Rosenbergs he says that he believes in “free individual enterprise versus predestined structure, social engineering. Surely the Rosenbergs could be talked out of such crap” (407). However, free individual enterprise is itself a premodeled structure within American culture. Uncle Sam says that the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence were “[t]he wild oats of youth,” and that they are “great for stirrin’ up the jism when you’re nation-breedin’, but it ain’t no way to live a life” (531). Despite Nixon’s complaint about what Uncle Sam says, he himself attacks “the rise, development, and―as some would argue partial decay of the philosophy called ‘liberalism,’” and argues “for a naval blockade of Red China, a massive invasion of Southeast Asia” (478). Therefore, when Americans say that they fight the Soviet Union because they promote freedom in the world against the enslaving Communists, what they actually mean is that to be
free is to fully accept the doctrines of those in authority. If it serves their goals, American politicians will not hesitate resorting to enslaving and racism in order to achieve their goals, despite being the torch-bearers of freedom: ““Maybe we needed to revive the Know-Nothings and the American Protective Association, put a stop to the contamination, I thought sourly. Close the door, fuck the oppressed of every nation, get the Old Man in the pink again” (343). Questions What do you think of Nixon’s character? Is he portrayed simply as an idiot, and a manipulative character, or is there another dimension to his personality? Is history simply a fabrication, as Coover believes? Is the American public as gullible as Europeans like to think? What are the reasons behind the passivity of the Americans? Is it partially their responsibility or are they simply victimized? Doesn’t the same thing apply for Greeks and Europeans? In a society where all culture signs and signifiers are controlled by authority and used for the repression of the masses are there any real alternatives for the creation of another culture autonomous from bourgeois directives, or pessimism and solipsism are the only escape routes?
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