It was an honor and pleasure to be asked to lecture recently at a university like Auburn in Alabama. But just between us, it made me uneasy.
I will tell you why: I'm afraid they invited the wrong Paul Greenberg.
You see, it is the other Greenberg that things happen to, that politics still excites, who still looks on the world as new, to whom ideas occur, who pontificates and prophesies and ponders in public, who composes orations in the shower and loves to hear himself talk.
Me, I just stroll the streets of Little Rock, pausing now and then to study the iron grill work over an old cemetery, to commune with the graves, to gaze at the scrollwork adorning the top of an old building visible from my office window.
Of the other Greenberg I get news through the mail. The bills are addressed to me; he gets the invitations and compliments, the biting responses to his newspaper column, the single-spaced faxes asking him to use his immense influence on behalf of some invention or panacea or tax reform whose brilliance no one else may have yet recognized, but that will revolutionize American society because . . . .
It is he who gets the phone messages, the requests for his autographed picture, the poison pen letters, the urgent communications from the obsessed and litigious and paranoiac, the privately published books and corporate PR and government press releases, the unending mailings from the Right to Work Committee, the White House. And he seems to relish it all. Indiscriminately.
Now and then I glimpse his name in the public prints or on a committee of journalists or in other places gentlemen do not frequent.
Me, I like old books, old films, old typefaces, the smell of coffee and the taste of Scotch whisky; the origin and connotations of words; Mozart and Telemann, Carmen and Patsy Cline; all the passions that are safely dead. Like the curious philosophical and historical ruminations of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), which were outmoded even when they were composed in early 18th-century Naples. And the poetry and prose of Jorge Luis Borges of Buenos Aires and the world, a Homer without a Greece.
Perhaps you too have read and delighted in Borges, and will recognize the theme of this literally self-indulgent column as having been shamelessly stolen and slavishly copied from Borges' one-page masterpiece titled "Borges and Myself."
As for the other Greenberg--we are quite close--he shares my enthusiasms for the writings of Borges. He too admires the historical philosophizing of Ortega y Gasset, the poems of Emily Dickinson, the essays of George Orwell, and the pastoral game of baseball. He shares my lack of enthusiasm for political polls, modern art, air travel, and pointless violence, including the game of football. The other Greenberg shares my tastes and distastes, but in a showy way that turns them into stagy mannerisms.
It would be an exaggeration to say that he and I are on bad terms. Indeed, I fear my purpose in living now is so that he can weave together his columns and books and speeches and embarrassing little clevernesses.
When pressed I will admit he has managed to write a few good paragraphs that may endure till that day's newspaper is discarded, but not even that can save me, because whatever is worthy there no longer belongs to me, or even to the other man, but soon enough becomes part of the conventional knowledge, the static background everybody knows and no longer notices. Its familiarity breeds contempt the way corners do dust.
He has been described, honestly enough, as a perverse and isolated recalcitrant who imagines that character and competence, ideas and imagination, a sense of duty and honor, are more important in the leader of a republic than effectiveness as a mass campaigner. Clearly he is a minor figure out of his time, which is the Age of Clinton.
Some, less than honest, have concluded that he must have something personal against the chief magistrate of the Republic to have opposed a presidential candidate from his own small wonderful province. As if Bill Clinton, except on rare occasions, and only after being provoked, had ever been anything but civil to him.
After election night, 1992, I thought: Now at last we will both be left alone. No such luck. Now, three years later, the speaking invitations proliferate. Publishers make book offers. He is hailed as farsighted, a fashion setter, and, among a certain clubby kind of ultra-conservative, One of Us. He gets calls from aficionados of conspiracies and the kind of ghouls who still feed on the sad death of Vince Foster. He is made privy to fantastical theories about the Clintons that make even his tasteless mass-marketed soul cringe.
In what seems the shortest possible time he has gone from pariah to prophet. Smug and gregarious, he thinks it all his due. As someone who was never a joiner, it all makes me want to flee--to take the first bus to Tucumcari, N.M. In another time, I would have booked passage on the first ship to Tarshish, like another ridiculous prophet whose standards were higher than God's.
Is it not sufficiently boring to have spent one's working life watching The Rise and Rise of Bill Clinton? Must I be linked to him in history too? For it begins to dawn that the only mention of my name in the all-swallowing American future that is even now upon us will be in the index of the sort of Clinton biographies that no one reads even now.
(Borges mentions somewhere that Spanish literature has no need of a Ralph Waldo Emerson because it is already boring enough. Somewhere there must be happy little countries already sufficiently boring to have no need of a Bill Clinton.)
The other Greenberg revels in all this. He delights in the clintonesque. He finds the presidential couple fascinating, the perfect embodiment of the America of the 1990s. He is now deep into not guilt by association but career by association. It has not yet occurred to him, sophisticate that he foolishly imagines himself to be, that soon enough he will go back to obscurity. And be glad of it.
He is convinced that his brilliant insights explain his sudden popularity, but you and I know that his notoriety is only the result of his having been isolated in Arkansas for about 30 years, safely immunized from the fickle fever swamp that is national public opinion, and obliged to occupy a ringside seat and watch the making of a president. Simple propinquity may say more about our lives and interests than our egos may be able to bear.
Myself, I preferred the good old days--1992--when the presidential election promised to sweep us both away, like two sober soreheads at a pretty good party who can think of nothing but the hangover to come. Those were the days, my friend. Ah, solitude. I've always felt better being in the minority, preferably a minority of one. Then you can be sure you are not just following the herd.
It was wonderful while it lasted. Then came November 1994. The Republican revolution. The very Vesuvius of midterm elections. I will spare you the statistical rundown, the usual panegyric about the transformation of both houses of Congress, and the number of governorships and legislative seats and dogcatcher's offices that changed hands in the greatest seismic shift in American party history this century. Suffice it to say that nine million more of my countrymen voted Republican than had done so only two years before, in 1992, and a million or two less voted Democratic, amounting to a shift of some 10 million votes.
Imagine how I felt. It is disconcerting when a whole continental mass suddenly seems to share what you had safely assumed were your own novel insights and intimate reactions to the first few years of the coming age. I was appalled.
It is the other Greenberg who delights in all this whirl and swirl, publicly noting this or that aspect of the rapidly passing scene like some rude tourist guide pointing his finger at every tall building, as though no one else could see the obvious.
Years ago I tried to rid myself of his tiresome presence by taking refuge in the stories of Borges, trying to lose myself in the travel writings of Rebecca West, or by puzzling out an occasional page of Talmud, but I found that he expropriated even those for his own purposes. My life is running away and I am left with nothing of my own. I am losing everything--either to oblivion or to the other man. Which one of us has just written this column, I really don't know.
Paul Greenberg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. This column originally appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Oct. 22, 1995.
Editorial on 09/19/2018
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