Beer in the mail room

MissionA recent post, Columbia Days, noticed that Barack Obama's own account of his arrival in New York so perfectly juxtaposed his roommate Sadik's abandonment to the temptations of New York City to his own high-minded sense of mission that it seemed too good to be true. In Obama's account he arrived in NYC without a place to stay,  sans money for lodging and only one name in his address book. After spending a night looking for his friend and washing up at a hydrant, BHO eventually finds his friend, in the company of a somewhat dubious woman and given over to worldly ambition. His friend Sadik introduces the new arrival in the doorway to the scantily clad woman as "Barry" -- the name he knew Obama by --  and is sharply corrected. I wrote:

The scene is a masterful piece of writing which contrasts a man fired with idealism to the cynical, world-weary Siddiqi.  The images of the white hen pecking at garbage, and the scratch ablutions conducted in company with a vagrant at a fire hydrant are juxtaposed with a sudden transition to a scene with woman in underwear seated beside a suspicious razor as disposable as Sadik’s relationship with her. Two worlds met on that doorstep. And in case the reader missed the point the whole is driven home by a conversational exchange as dramatic as the “Call me Mister” moment in the Virginian. When Sadik introduces the new arrival to the woman in underwear, saying “this is Barry” Obama retorts “‘Barack,’ I corrected, dropping my bags on the floor.”

Later, I remarked in comments that "No one can hide the facts in an autobiography better than a good writer. TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom ... is long, descriptive and beautiful. And yet in the end Lawrence remains a mystery within his own account." Reality is less tidy than fiction.  Whenever you are confronted with a narrative that works just like fiction, you proceed with caution.  It is not that you suspect dishonesty; you suspect memory. One of the temptations of autobiography is to rewrite events the way they should have happened rather than how they actually happened.  And maybe the caution is justified.  Analyze This compares Obama's account of his days at a "consulting firm" with his own recollection of events which contrasts markedly with Obama's witching narrative.

I have to say that Barack engages in some serious exaggeration when he describes a job that he held in the mid-1980s. I know because I sat down the hall from him, in the same department, and worked closely with his boss. ... First, it wasn’t a consulting house; it was a small company that published newsletters on international business. ... It’s also not true that Barack was the only black man in the company. He was the only black professional man. Fred was an African-American who worked in the mailroom with his son. My boss and I used to join them on Friday afternoons to drink beer behind the stacks of office supplies. That’s not the kind of thing that Barack would do. Like I said, he was somewhat aloof. ... If Barack was promoted, his new job responsibilities were more of the same - rewriting other people’s copy. As far as I know, he always had a small office, and the idea that he had a secretary is laughable.  ...

All of Barack’s embellishment serves a larger narrative purpose: to retell the story of the Christ’s temptation. The young, idealistic, would-be community organizer gets a nice suit, joins a consulting house, starts hanging out with investment bankers, and barely escapes moving into the big mansion with the white folks. Luckily, an angel calls, awakens his conscience, and helps him choose instead to fight for the people.

Like I said, I’m a fan. His famous keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention moved me to tears. The Democrats - not to mention America - need a mixed-race spokesperson who can connect to both urban blacks and rural whites, who has the credibility to challenge the status quo on issues ranging from misogynistic rap to unfair school funding.

“No one can hide the facts in an autobiography better than a good writer."  Seven Pillars is full of unforgettable word-pictures, including a remarkable scene which helps round out Lawrence's romantic picture of the nomad. It is so wonderful that even though I cannot persuaded that it happened as it did, I am half-happy to credit the fiction. Here is Lawrence's account of a ride into the desert and his encounter with emptiness of the desert, his destiny and himself.

The common base of all the Semitic creeds, winners or losers, was the ever present idea of world-worthlessness. Their profound reaction from matter led them to preach bareness, renunciation, poverty; and the atmosphere of this invention stifled the minds of the desert pitilessly. A first knowledge of their sense of the purity of rarefaction was given me in early years, when we had ridden far out over the rolling plains of North Syria to a ruin of the Roman period which the Arabs believed was made by a prince of the border as a desert-palace for his queen. The clay of its building was said to have been kneaded for greater richness, not with water, but with the precious essential oils of flowers. My guides, sniffing the air like dogs, led me from crumbling room to room, saying, 'This is jessamine, this violet, this rose'. But at last Dahoum drew me: 'Come and smell the very sweetest scent of all', and we went into the main lodging, to the gaping window sockets of its eastern face, and there drank with open mouths of the effortless, empty, eddyless wind of the desert, throbbing past. That slow breath had been born somewhere beyond the distant Euphrates and had dragged its way across many days and nights of dead grass, to its first obstacle, the man-made walls of our broken palace. About them it seemed to fret and linger, murmuring in baby-speech. 'This,' they told me, 'is the best: it has no taste.' My Arabs were turning their backs on perfumes and luxuries to choose the things in which mankind had had no share or part.

The ruined palace, the lonely spaces, the invitation to 'come and smell the very sweetest scent of all' -- is beautiful in an otherwordly sense.  Yet sometimes I wonder whether on some other scale, ordinariness is not better; whether sitting down to gnaw on dates in the sand instead of visiting haunted ruins or having a beer Friday afternoons in place of aloofness isn't somehow the greater thing.  John Buchan in his classic novel Witch Wood describes a minister who helps a old shepherd bury his wife in a poor coffin,  and as he rides away from the shack, the strong, young well-educated minister realizes that maybe the simple things in life, and not the proud and unbending, are likely to be remembered in the mind of God.

It seemed to David as he turned from the door, where the shepherd stood with uplifted arm, that a benediction had been given, but not by him.

The moon had risen and the glen lay in a yellow light, with the high hills between Rood and Aller shrunk to mild ridges. The stream caught the glow, and its shallows were like silver chased in amber. The young man's heart was full with the scene which he had left. Death was very near to men, jostling them at every corner, whispering in their ear at kirk and market, creeping between them and their firesides. Soon the shepherd of the Greenshiel would lie beside his wife; in a little, too, his own stout limbs would be a heap of dust. How small and frail seemed the life in that cottage, as contrasted with the rich pulsing world of the woods and hills and their serene continuance. But it was they that were the shadows in God's sight. The immortal thing was the broken human heart that could say in its frailty that its Redeemer liveth.

When Barack Obama visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem during his recent world tour, he is said to have inserted a prayer into the stones which the LA Times reports as saying: "Lord—Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will." And not you alone, Barack. Not you alone.

Tip Jar.