The Casual Vacancy, Harry Potter author J.K Rowling’s first “adult” novel, must have been inspired by Yeats’ “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” And, despite the setting in a small, West England town, it is a fitting accompaniment to an American politics grown rotten. It is certainly no escape, though it does lessen the pain.
Rowling’s book isn’t a political novel as much as it is a contemporary take on a traditional English-countryside yarn. Still, it describes with painful detail the pettiness and prejudice that floats like a smelly fog through the streets of Pagford, a town coping badly with the unexpected death of a leading citizen and one of the few empathetic souls within its limits.
The conservative Pagford Parish Council, long annoyed at the low-income housing project forced upon it some years earlier, is using the Conservative Party’s austerity program as an excuse to excise the projects from its borders. The political struggle over the future of the Fields, as the projects are know, pulls back the curtain on the adultery, drunkenness, deceit, domestic abuse, addiction, self-harm, bigotry, ignorance and jealousy that poison the town.
It’s this that reminds me of Yeats’ poem. Out of what, Rowling must have asked herself, did the “masterful images” of the Potter novels begin? She answered with A Casual Vacancy. Yeats, of course, answered:
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Neither Rowling nor Yeats believes that corruption fully defines the human heart. If they did, neither could have produced the beautiful works of magic they produced. Neither live in a Hobbesian gloom. Both are Romantics. Both build ladders of love, loyalty, compassion, and friendship nailed together with a deep understanding of human confusion in the face of mortality and loss.
Politics is nothing more than the working-out of our differences in a collective effort to make the best of our shared circumstances. But we are human, after all, and so our politics reflect our weaknesses as well as our strengths. One of the great comforts of art is that it kind remind us of this. These days, I need quite a bit of reminding.
There’s something about the 2012 election cycle that has irritated and saddened me in ways past elections didn’t. I begin each day surveying the clips, getting the lay of the political land. By the time the survey is done, I often find myself disenchanted and disgusted.
Saturday morning, for instance, I came across a brief article describing Ann Coulter’s sarcastic suggestion that it was time the Right, which according to her never attacked opponents’ families, went after President Obama’s children. She argued that the Left “grotesquely” attacked the children of their opponents, so maybe the Right should take the gloves off.
Coulter can’t be taken seriously, of course. She’s just an unfunny entertainer out to hustle a buck. However, the post I read refuting her claim went on to list examples of right-wing attacks on children: Rush Limbaugh comparing Chelsea Clinton to a dog, Glenn Beck and Limbaugh imitating Malia Obama with faux-falsetto voice impersonations.
This is the stuff of the middle-school playground. Mean-spirited bullying and arrogant, obvious deceit have always stained our politics. But the stain has spread this year. And I fear it won’t wash out.
And then I read Rowling’s just-published book. It’s receiving mixed reviews. Her own “rag and bone shop of the heart” will disappoint some readers. Reading it just now, however, reminded me that there are ladders after all. I couldn’t read it without remembering that with effort we often transcend the pettiness and grubbiness of our condition. We are better than our politics, aren’t we?