THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?: The Death of the American Dream

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) by Horace McCoy

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          In the United States there is a great self-perpetuating myth that hard work and tireless exertion can lead to wealth, success, and prosperity for all. As an anesthetic to the monotonous daily grind of work-eat-sleep, certain distracting entertainments are dangled in front of the eyes of the working class, along with the promise of greater material gain for their continued efforts. Their will to live is soon usurped by their will to possess, which is intrinsically tied-up in the compulsion to work. As a result, labor becomes an end in itself: not that which sustains life, but that which promises prosperity —  a promise that is necessarily just-beyond-reach, as those who control the means of production must ensure that workers continue to strive for that ever-elusive golden ring without actually achieving it. Thus, the working class is defeated in their efforts before they even begin, born into circumstances that ironically reward those who labor the least by virtue of their inherited status, and wear down those who work the hardest for the smallest degree of potential gain.

          It is this circuitous grind that Horace McCoy explores in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, one of the most important works of existential fiction to come from the United States, employing a 1930s dance marathon as an allegory for the horrific, self-destructive competition that capitalism engenders in workers. The novel begins telling us exactly how events will end: narrator Robert Syverten is on trial for the murder of Gloria Beatty. He admits guilt and throws himself on the mercy of the court: he was only doing Gloria a favor, he states.

          Robert and Gloria are down-and-out Hollywood performers in the 1930s looking to make money as they strive for their dreams. They decide to enter a dance marathon — a grueling, weeks-long event in which promoters promise contestants cash for out-lasting one another in bouts of dancing and speed-walking derbies that continue for hours at a time. Contestants are given mere ten-minute breaks for food and brief rest, hardly time enough to recuperate from their hours of work.

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Jane Fonda and Bruce Dern in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1969)

          Like a real-life version of The Hunger Games, wealthy patrons in the stands can “sponsor” contestants, giving them money or other advantages, which pits contestants against each other — sometimes violently — for recognition. While the rules seem straight-forward, it is clear that the organizers are pulling strings behind the scenes, changing rules and making up new ones as the contest wears on. Their only goal is to promote the madness by exploiting the young couples for maximum profit. The $1,000 prize is dangled in front of the contestants, but ultimately there are no winners —  only downtrodden young couples in varying states of loss and grief.

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Horace McCoy

          As the marathon progresses, couples find themselves competing in special events and derbies that have no prize attached: they do it merely because they have gotten into the routine. Trapped in a system that promises them an ultimate prize at the end, they feel compelled to work overtime for no immediate gain in the hope that they will attain their ultimate reward at the end.


She shot the pistol and we were off.

Gloria and I let the racehorses set the pace. We made no effort to get out in front. Our system was to set a steady clip and hold it. There was no special prize money tonight. Even if there had been it would have made no difference to us.

The audience applauded and stamped their feet, begging for thrills, but this was one night they didn’t get them. Only one girl, Ruby Bates, went into the pit and that was only for two laps. And for the first time in weeks nobody collapsed on the floor when the race was over.

But something happened that frightened me. Gloria had pulled on my belt harder and longer than she ever had before. For the last five minutes of the derby it seemed she had no power of her own. I had practically dragged her around the track. I had a feeling we had just missed being eliminated ourselves. We had just missed. Late that night Mrs. Layden told me she had spoken to the man who had checked us. We had made only two more laps than the losers. That chilled me. I made up my mind then that from now on I had better forget my system and open up.

–Horace McCoy


          McCoy’s novel is a brief, stark critique of an exploitative system that destroys the will to live even as it promises prosperity. Ironically, the contestants enter the marathon as a means of survival, only to find the contest is the very event that is most hindering their struggle to survive. Robert and Gloria soon understand that the marathon becomes their only purpose in life — one that is so dreary and unending that it offers no purpose at all. The only thing that remains for Gloria is to ask Robert to put her out of her misery. As his guilty verdict is handed down by the judge at the end of the novel (a verdict that McCoy clearly telegraphs from the opening pages: this is a system in which we are all condemned from the very beginning), Robert speaks his defense as the last lines of the novel: “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

          It is no coincidence that McCoy sets the novel in Hollywood, a land in which the dreams and desires of a nation are manufactured as myth to be sold to a population desperate for hope as a distraction from their meaningless cycle of despair. Like its literary cousin The Day of the Locust (published by Nathanael West four years later in 1939, and also set in Hollywood), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a Depression-era shot across the bow of the mythical American Dream — the failed promise of a capitalist system that thrives on promoting a prize it can never deliver. Eighty years later in the United States, the novel stills feels as honest and urgent as it was in 1935.

BILLIARDS AT HALF-PAST NINE: The Lasting Ruins of Fascism

Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1959) by Heinrich Böll

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          The specter of fascism doesn’t merely disappear when the threat is defeated. It lingers for generations, with much of the psychological effects becoming manifest only years after the violence has ended. This is the basis of Heinrich Böll’s novel about three generations of German architects who struggle with the impact of two World Wars and Nazi oppression. Their friendships, families, and psyches are shattered, and the fragmented narrative of the novel reflects this reality, where memories are always ever-present, like the ruins of the city after the war.

          Grandfather Robert Faehmel has great dreams of building churches and having a large, robust family well into old age. He begins his career by designing an abbey that is the pride of the city. Unfortunately, the Nazis arrive as the “Beast” to destroy everything in their wake. Opposed to the nationalist thugs are the “lambs” of the novel: those who resist the Beast, but who are often slaughtered for their efforts. Robert’s son, Richard, is described as a shepherd: he attempts to rescue as many lambs as possible, including his school friend Schrella, the victim of bullying in the schoolyard by both a student and a teacher who would be attracted to fascism. Richard is forced into the military even as he resists the Nazis, ironically being offered the role demolition expert due to his knowledge of building structures. 

          Despite being an architect himself, Richard doesn’t build anything, either during the war or after. Indeed, his big secret is that he was the one who blew up the very abbey his father designed on the orders of a foolish commander. The symbolism is clear: under the thumb of the Beast, an entire generation of Germans became sterile, unable to build upon the achievements of their parents, but only destroying, at the behest of the Nazis, the great civilization handed to them.


Men, responsibility. Obeying the law, imparting a sense of history to children, counting money and resolved on political reason, all were doomed to partake of the Host of the Beast, like my brothers. They were young in years only, and the only one thing — death — promised them glory, would give them greatness and enfold them in the veils of myth. Time was nothing but a means of bringing them closer to death.

–Heinrich Böll


          Even though it was published in 1959, Böll’s novel is distinctly modernist, with each chapter written from the perspective of a different character. The simultaneity of inner and outer experiences, as well as the fractured temporality of the text, give the impression that the novel was written thirty years earlier — in other words, at the very time when many of the events of the novel take place in memory. The memories and flashbacks to the past are as clear as if they were happening in the present (the late-50s, when the novel was set). Every building, person, and object reminds Robert and Richard of their past. Robert’s son, Joseph, is also an architect. He discovers his father’s secret and must come to terms with living in a world of ruins handed to him by the previous generation. We also encounter former-Nazis who are now politicians and government officials, many of whom are only moderately repentant.

          When a former Nazi runs for office on a staunch nationalist ticket, Böll takes us down a road that is difficult to discuss: how far do we go to ensure that fascism doesn’t return? Those who are most vulnerable, and who are driven almost to the point of madness, might take matters into their own hands and resort to violence — and even assassination — to prevent the next rising of fascism. Is this acceptable? Böll doesn’t attempt to justify such violent recourse, but he does try to understand it.

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Heinrich Böll

          I am tempted to call this novel a postmortem of Germany after the fall of the Third Reich during the ensuing years of the so-called Economic Miracle, but the entire point of the novel is that fascism wasn’t dead at all. It was still alive, and remains so, but in muted or distilled form. Böll shows how the specter of fascism will inevitably haunt succeeding generations, and even attempts at healing through unification will never entirely erase the scars and ruins (both physical and psychosocial) that remain. Böll’s novel serves as a warning that when the menace is turned loose, no one escapes harm, whether lamb, shepherd, or beast.

THE CONFUSIONS OF YOUNG TÖRLESS: A Psychosexual Study of Fascism

The Confusions of Young Törless (1906) by Robert Musiltorless

          One of the complex issues the Left has been trying to understand in the last month is not why so many hate groups lined up in support of Donald Trump (that explanation is relatively straight-forward), but instead how it was possible for so many regular, law-abiding, “moral” Americans, who don’t appear on the surface to hold prejudicial views, to cast their ballots for a man who is not only the antithesis of ethical leadership, but who is also, admittedly even to some Trump voters, morally repulsive.

          Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless gets to the crux of this question. It is a brilliant novel of ideas that examines the duality of man, the nature of authoritarianism, the connections between sexuality and aggression, and the psychological development of modern (post-Enlightenment) man. In short, Törless is a young boy at a military boarding school who faces his own inner struggle to understand man’s darker side, including his confused sexuality, while going along with the bullying, physical torture, psychological abuse, and sexual violence perpetrated by older classmates (Reiting and Beineberg) against a student named Basini, to whom all three are repulsed and sexually attracted in equal measure. Törless begins to take part in the abuse more and more, even as he begins to identify with Basini. (Indeed, precisely because he begins to identify with Basini, the abuse becomes a type of lashing out against the emerging feelings that Törless denies to accept within himself.) For these reasons, the novel is justly famous for its examination of the psychosexual causes behind the authoritarian mentality that gave rise to fascism in Europe decades after the novel’s publication.

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The Confusions of Young Törless (dir. Volker Schlöndorff, 1966)

          But on another level, Musil’s novel is about the unknown and unknowable spaces that constitute the connective tissues of our reality — from the struggle to understand our sexuality to the mystery of our dreamworld and subconscious desires. In one central section (which happens to occur exactly in the middle of the text) Törless ponders the impossible contradictions of imaginary numbers in mathematics. They don’t really exist, but simply by accepting the possibility that they might exist — and by going about our mathematical calculations as if they did — we can get useful results that impact real numbers and calculations. The metaphor Törless uses is that of two piers connected by an unknown empty space that we must somehow traverse. And this is the impossibility of existence: of knowing ourselves, our world, and each other, as well as how we integrate these unknowns into our daily lives. It is also the impossibility of communication, or even of literature. In each case, we must step into the void and assume that the impossible must exist if we to are function in the real world. The irony is that this knowledge neither comforts nor reassures Törless (or us), but only adds to the anxiety of his existence. Young Törless is about what happens when insecurity leads us to fill those empty spaces with fear, violence, and self-loathing, giving us a false sense of security that we can somehow safely traverse the void between perceptions that constitute our outer world and our unknown or unknowable inner world. And so what we accept as “reality” hangs in the balance between those two states. (As Dylan sings, “I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man / like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand….”)

          There are certainly parallels to what Jung would term (years later) the “Shadow” and man’s attempt at individuation, as well as a Freudian framework of reason/instinct; however, incredibly, Musil wrote this novel before reading any of Freud’s work (according to scholar Ritchie Robinson’s introduction to the Oxford edition). Adding to Törless’s own struggle to understand this duality is his realization that he actually enjoys witnessing Basini’s torture, even as it repulses him. Although he tells himself that his attraction is merely due to his own desire to study this dark side of his psyche, he knows that in studying it, he is necessarily feeding into it. Whereas Reiting gets his kicks from physically dominating Basini, and Beineberg rattles off some half-cocked (pardon the pun) plan to study Basini’s soul, it is Törless who becomes the worst torturer because he sees himself in Basini’s submission — and Basini knows it. As Törless’ “observes” the torture to understand the underlying why of it all, he acknowledges his own complicity, accepts that he (Törless) could just as easily be in Basini’s place, and realizes that all the boys go along with the torture because they are trapped in a psychological order of domination/submission that cannot be escaped — an order that exists beyond moral precepts, becoming manifest when the authoritarian lashes out at those with whom he most identifies.


So Törless stopped looking for words. Sensuality, which had stolen into him bit by bit from the separate moments of despair, now rose to its full height. It was lying naked beside him, covering his head with its soft black cloak. And it was whispering sweet words of resignation in his ear and with its warm fingers pushing away all questions and obligations as futile. And it was whispering: in solitude everything is allowed.

Only at that moment when he was swept away did he wake for a second and cling desperately to the one thought: “This isn’t me! … isn’t me!… Only in the morning will it be me again… in the morning…”

–Robert Musil


          By the end of the novel, neither religion nor science/philosophy (as represented by the two schoolmasters who teach those subjects to the boys) can help or understand Törless. And the headmaster is only concerned with what’s right for the school, not for the boys themselves. In a way, these three authority figures who sit in judgement of Törless are not unlike the three boys themselves who assert their authority over Basini. The cycle continues and, as Musil reveals near the end of the novel, Törless will end up becoming a civil, law-abiding, morally detached adult, repressing his own dark desires to dominate others while labeling the oppressed as “weak” and simultaneously condemning anyone who resists oppression rather than addressing that same weakness within himself.

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Robert Musil

          And so Musil, at the age of 25, charts the development of the amoral ascetic (Beineberg, who rejects all perceived moral flaws in himself by ruthlessly and obsessively studying and condemning them in others), the fascist (Reiting, who demands obedience and desires to lead his classmates to attack, torture, and punish their weaker peers), and, to borrow a concept from Adorno, the “authoritarian personality” (Törless, who recognizes these impulses in others, but nonetheless goes about his life in a type of moral detachment so as to live a civil life).

          By the end of the novel, Törless has developed a strictly-structured super-ego that will guide his detached morality for the rest of his life. And here, somewhere between Beineberg and Törless, we find the ideal subject for a dictatorial regime (an interpretation Musil himself advanced in the 1930s): average, law-abiding, “moral” citizens who join the local PTA, who ritualistically mow their lawns, and who, in the words of songwriter P.F Sloan, “hate (their) next door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace.”

          Musil’s novel is required reading not only for us to examine the defining social, psychological, and political structures of 20th century modernity, but also to get a glimpse into the gestation of 21st century American Trumpism and its acolytes who rationalize their own subjugation.

The Inaugural List: Literary Fiction for the Trump Era

Introduction

          When I find myself stressed, needing direction, or searching for answers, I always turn to books. Especially fiction. Needless to say, I’ve been doing a lot of reading the past few weeks in preparation for the coming Trump administration, mainly finding solace in Weimar-era fiction. It’s unfortunate that these novels of loss and alienation feel so relevant as we enter 2017. We always plan for the future to be hopeful, but the next four years in the United States (perhaps even the next decade) are likely to be unstable, unpredictable, and even oppressive. And so I’ve turned to fiction to help me cope with that reality and to help me understand how and why a culture that appeared to be moving towards openness and inclusivity is shifting dramatically back towards nativism — a very real threat our nation confronts as we begin 2017 — and what the consequences of such a transformation might be for the republic and its people. The reality we must accept is that the United States has always been nativist, despite being a nation of immigrants, and that the battles we will fight in the coming years are the same ones that were fought by progressives throughout history, both in the United States and abroad.

          This is the first lesson that fiction teaches us: Trumpism is nothing new. It’s just an updated spin on an old tale.

          Trump practices a brand of authoritarianism that is more Know-Nothingism than fascism, but the two are parallel ideologies, even if they have their roots in different cultures, countries, and eras. I think that’s why I have gravitated towards so many novels written by German, Austrian, and Jewish writers in the years between the wars. The writers on this list grappled with the same issues that we are facing in the United States on the verge of Trump’s inauguration: rigid and deep divides of class, culture, and political viewpoint; a decade of expanding social freedoms and cultural progress met with heavy resistance by the right; the growing sentiment of nativism, anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, and prejudice that blossomed in the far right and threatens to consume not only the nation, but the world; a volatile economy that only further divides the wealthy from the working class; and now that Trump is elected, the prospect of an extreme emphasis on military might, capitalism unchecked by governmental regulation, and an authoritarian figurehead whose heated rhetoric has created a cult of personality for whom the consolidation of power is a desired end. As our institutional safeguards continue to fail us, we see ourselves in much the same situation as many of these writers in the early 1930s. In short, with the election of Trump, we have made a bargain with an American Mephisto.

          This is the social and political context framing the United States as we enter 2017, and it is the basis for this blog, which uses literature (with a strong emphasis on fiction) as a lens through which we examine this social and political dynamic. What lessons can literature teach us?  As Steinbeck wrote in America and Americans (the only nonfiction work on this initial list), the human desire to read and discuss fiction is a way for us to understand the present and encounter the past by not merely memorizing a record of events, but by absorbing the personal stories of people who lived through those events: “History only recounts, with some inaccuracy, what they did. The fiction tells, or tries to tell, why they did it and what they felt and were like when they did it.”

          In the spirit of Steinbeck’s words, and with the conviction that fiction can provide insight, knowledge, and communal self-reflection for a populace, I have created this blog, which I plan to keep in the longterm as I read more fiction (especially written and published by Americans during this turbulent period) that addresses the “whys” of our inevitable national transformation under Trump. I may sometimes profile works of nonfiction or poetry, but I will try to stick mainly to fiction, for the reason listed above. These blog entries are meant to highlight books that tell us something about ourselves, from which we might learn, draw strength, or heed the warnings of past voices — they might be historical or contemporary voices, but each one is worth reading in the Trump era. My blog entries will be my reflections on why these voices speak to me personally, but they will also pertain to issues that impact us all. 

          I share this blog with my friends, and anyone else who might be reading these words, who enjoy fiction and who might also need a cathartic release through encountering somewhat relatable experiences expressed by these writers. I hope this blog might also encourage others to read these works or to write their own reflections on books that impact their worldview or change their perspective.

          To begin the blog, I will profile one novel per day leading up to Inauguration Day, beginning tomorrow with Klaus Mann’s Mephisto. After the inauguration, I plan to update this blog about once per week as I read current American fiction or world classics (with occasional works of nonfiction) that speak to American life in the Trump era.


The Inaugural List

 

1) Mephisto (1936) by Klaus Mann

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2) The Confusions of Young Törless (1906) by Robert Musil

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3) Transit (1944) by Anna Seghers

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4) The Graveyard (1958) by Marek Hlasko

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5) Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1958) by Heinrich Böll

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6) The Iron Heel (1908) by Jack London

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7) We Are Not Alone (1937) by James Hilton

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8) The Harbor (1915) by Ernest Poole

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9) All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

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10) Man of Straw (The Loyal Subject) (1918) by Heinrich Mann

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11) Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin

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12) Chess (1941) by Stephan Zweig

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13) It Can’t Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis

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14) Life Goes On (1934) by Hans Keilson

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15) Mother Night (1961) by Kurt Vonnegut

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16) Generals Die in Bed (1930) Charles Yale Harrison

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17) Cancer Ward (1968) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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18) After Midnight (1937) by Irmgard Keun

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19) They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) by Horace McCoy

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20) America and Americans (1966) by John Steinbeck (nonfiction)

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