Saturday, February 8, 2014

The argon presidency

The political scientist,
in so far as he wishes to
remain a scientist, is lim-
ited to the study of tech-
niques. A good deal of what
is called political science,
I must confess, seems to me
a device, invented by aca-
demic persons, for avoiding
that dangerous subject pol-
itics, without achieving

It is not premature to identify the
present Administration, historical-
ly, as the Argon presidency. It is 
Zinc, but these are laid on, pallid,
episodic, and ambivalent, as such
things always are with that reticent
element. The aloof element is not 
ungenuine, either; it simply cannot 
join in any stable compound. It has 
always been vexatious pseudoscience 
to imagine tactics for firing its 
inertness. Argon doesn't lack polar-
ity, it lacks affinity. 

As a repair for atrocity in office, 
which its genius is only to smother, 
it is content to afford a somnolent 
blanket of innocuous gas. The under-
lying turmoil, visibly rending the 
society it surveys, is beyond its 
reach, if it had one. But in truth
no force that brought it into pow-
er and none which resists it, be-
stirs its indifference. This is per-
fect for inhibiting degradation in
an opened wine, but equally so for
promoting it in an open society.

This appreciation, as one can guess,
is for the same reader who keeps the
place intractably disreputable. That
suspected dilettante, known as the
well rounded scholar, so exemplarily
embodied by every honourable school-
boy who ever lived, is never going 
to be an adherent of think-tank tru-
isms. To think with him is to learn 
with the best; we don't read Laski's 
The American Presidency these days, 
under that title; rather, we read
of it in his letters with Justice 
Holmes, in which they speak of get-
ting outdoors at Beverly. It's how 
these things are done. But scribes 
still saw away on lesser models, in 
a faux science which is less a dis-
cipline than a hermetic trade conceit. 
Restaurateurs, all. We know them. 

Today's liberation from the self in-
terested feed lot of political comment 
comes from the description of what it
was like to be living as a Jew in Pie-
monte in the 1930s and 1940s, or as 
many of those years as were allowed, 
before deportation or extermination
on the spot. It's not the story one
expects; it's authentic, in the first
person, brilliant, original, persua-
sive and, certainly, not provincial
in the slightest. I refer, don't I,
to Primo Levi's The Periodic Table.

It's not just revenge upon dry chem-
istry. It's a prophylactic against
fashionable formulas. For those to
whom such things may be a caution,
it's also imaginative and beautiful,
Socratic and satirical. It could be 
a ballet; I hope it will be. We may
wish, art were not diagnostic, but
we'd only have to invent it again.
We'd almost absolve it of useful-
ness, to rusticate the alchemists.
They write about what happens, and
talking-head about what happens, 
but they project margarine; and this
is because they can. They ignore, as
Professor Cobban was warning, above,
nature because they must, so that e-
ven their study of behaviour is dead.
Chemistry cannot afford such science. 

On arrival in office, Argon immediately
repudiated the go-go cohort that put it
there, precisely as Wilson had done; and
installed a lady from the Loop to make
sure its constituents were never heard.
That shining exile of muscular hope began
an atrophy conforming exquisitely with Ar-
gon's atomic structure.

This was not the usual extermination of
potential rivals, and it was not the usu-
al depopulation of the village. This was
Argon's helplessly candid resignation. I
recall being dazzled, and yet, to be fair,
I hadn't measured Argon's purity. I had
been brought by politics to think polit-
ically; and I had not read Primo Levi yet. 
I had thought, Argon is being curably ob-
tuse. But this is not true, because it 
cannot be true. It is not in Argon's rep-
ertoire to be stupid, only to be oblivi-
ous. The mirage of technique, meanwhile, 
enchanted our clerks, and caused us all
to struggle to reform an innocent element.

There is no doubt that they were inert
in their inner spirits, inclined to dis-
interested speculation, witty discourses,
elegant, sophisticated, and gratuitous dis-
cussion. It can hardly be by chance that all
the deeds attributed to them, though quite
various, have in common a touch of the static,
an attitude of dignified abstention, of volun-
tary (or accepted) relegation to the margins of
the great river of life.

Argon comes with a self- inflicted price; but with this element Levi does not foretell the rejection we all know as Holocaust. He has in mind Argon's cost to its culture. He remem-bers, as a child, visiting his very aged paternal grandmother, against her own reluctance to be bothered, who would usher him into the disused "good" living room, and dig out of some recess the box of chocolates, always the same box, and offer me one. The chocolate was worm-eaten, and with great embarrassment I would quickly hide it away in my pocket.

Alfred Cobban
University College, London
In Search of Humanity
  The Role of the Enlightenment
  in Modern History
  Lectures to Winthrop House,
  Harvard College
George Braziller, 1960©

Harold J. Laski
London School of Economics
University of London
The American Presidency,
  An Interpretation
Harper & Brothers, 1940©

Harold J. Laski and
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Holmes-Laski Letters, I and II
Mark DeWolfe Howe and
  Alger Hiss, editors
President and Fellows of Harvard College
Atheneum, 1963©

Primo Levi
The Periodic Table
Raymond Rosenthal
Schocken, 1984
Alfred A. Knopf, 1986©

George Adamson
Displaced Red Wine from Glass
  on Outside Table Becomes the
  Setting Sun

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