Wednesday, November 05, 2008

11/6/08 - Election results & happy endings

I can't believe it. It still hasn't sunk in. As I told a friend, I feel like this is the first national historic event I've lived through, before correcting myself and saying that is the first POSITIVE one, and my brain is still attempting to process its meaning and feeling.

On the history of the event, all that I can say is that I am immensely proud to have been alive when the US voted in its first black president. Trite, but I don't know how to say it in any other way that would not be too flowery and ridiculous. It is momentous enough that its importance needs only statement, not overstatement.

From a narrative perspective, what is so inspiring to me about the victory relates to something I've written about before in terms of sports - namely, that the "happy" or "right" ending is never guaranteed in life, which makes it all the sweeter when it does. The election of Barack Obama is like the ending to some Hollywood miniseries, what with the enormous symbolic power on display of a man redeeming the social sordidness of an ugly past.

What it reminds me of is the (possibly not true) story of how in early Puritan America people would stage Shakespeare's tragedies and change the endings to happy ones. In terms of the narrative that America prefers, there is a time and place for the warning tragedy, but what it truly near and dear to the national heart is the crazy against-all-odds Rocky kind of ending. Although, it would be fair to point out, Rocky lost.

But the beautiful loser/beautiful rebel strain running through the national narrative is no match for the overwhelming vector of the American happy ending (sure, Rocky lost in Rocky, but last I checked that was not the final word on the pugilist). In-no-way-realistic happy endings are the currency in trade, even when they seem trite, or unrealistic, or unearned. Unless you're talking about straight tragedies, the US likes its winners, and it likes them overcoming incredible odds.

Because the thing about odds is that they got that way for a reason. Every time an underdog fails it builds more a weight of evidence for the failure of the next underdog, on and to the next. So not only do we statistically know that the underdog is unlikely to win, we are conditioned by our own life experience to watch him/her fail. Aesthetically, narratively, Americans want their underdogs to succeed, which makes for a fascinating disconnect between American aesthetics and lived experience.

Functionally, it allows for that rush of pleasure when those aesthetics are matched in real life. "It's like a movie!" one muses, wide-mouthed in wonder, and the wonder comes from the disconnect between what we want and desire to happen and what so infrequently comes to pass.

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