Updike’s The Coup: Opposite possibilities.

An African official, in the act of organizing the non-violent coup which culminates John Updike’s The Coup, slyly invites the complicity of some visiting Americans:

“The channels of the mind, it may be, like those of our nostrils, have small hairs – cilia, is that the word? If we think always one way, these lie down and grow stiff and cease to perform their cleansing function. The essence of sanity, it has often been my reflection, is the entertainment of opposite possibilities: to think the contrary of what has been customarily thought, and thus to raise these little – cilia, am I wrong? – on end, so they can perform again in unimpeachable fashion their cleansing function. You want examples. If we believe that Allah is almighty, let us suppose that Allah is non-existent. If we have been assured that America is a nasty place, let us consider that it is a happy place.”

The official is advertising to the Americans his ideological flexibility, in contrast to his country’s dictator, the prophet of a macaronic anti-Western creed called “Islamic Marxism”. Putting aside the speaker’s cynical intentions, is there something to be said for entertaining challenging thoughts to activate the cilia in the “channels of the mind”?

It’s not a fashionable idea at present; witness (to pluck three examples from as many weeks of escalating Social Justice puritanism) the firing of Kevin Williamson by The Atlantic for carrying his anti-abortion beliefs to their logical conclusion, or the conviction of a Scottish YouTuber over a gag about his girlfriend’s Nazi pug dog, or the preposterously overheated responses to Jordan Peterson’s mild conservative nostrums.

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Left represented resistance to mob freakouts over sacrilege and indecency; we imagined this was a question of principle, not opportunism. Now it’s obvious that my young adulthood happened to coincide with a period of uncertainty between the collapse of one set of taboos, and the rise of another. For a half century or so, the skill of entertaining opposite possibilities was valued, idealized. Those of us who grew up during that half century assumed that keeping our cilia well-lubricated and flexible was healthy in itself. But maybe rather than the cilia, the fontanelles of the infant skull are a better analogy: they’re soft and yielding during the time of transition – the passage from one state to another, from pre- to post-natality – and then protectively harden. If taboos are a natural condition in human societies, thick-skulled acquiescence may be the healthiest option.

The Coup is a cilia-stimulating exercise in opposite possibilities, asking us to sympathize with the despot who, among other atrocities, burns alive a well-meaning American diplomat on a pyre of food crates intended for famine relief. His overthrow is possible because he takes leave of the capital to tour his country’s remote north, where he discovers an oil refinery, complete with an American-style suburb to house the native workers, has sprung up without his knowledge. He incites the locals to rise up and smash “this evil visitation, this malodorous eruption” of Western greed that is despoiling their pristine desert; his wavering mob is seduced away by the management’s offer of a free beer apiece at the refinery’s canteen.

Deposed, ignored, the ex-dictator winds up working as a short-order cook in a luncheonette, slinging burgers for the refinery workers. “[I]mmersed…relaxed at last” in the homogenizing, bourgeois End of History he had struggled to resist, he discovers subtle virtues in his deracinated countrymen:

There was no longer, with plenty, the need to thrust one’s personality into the face of the person opposite. Eye-contact was hard to make … The little hard-cornered challenges – to honor, courage, manliness, womanliness – by which our lives had been in poverty shaped were melting away, like our clay shambas and mosques, rounded into an inner reserve secret as a bank account; intercourse in Ellelloû moved to a music of disavowals that new arrivals, prickly and hungry from the bush, mistook for weakness but that was in fact the luxurious demur of strength.

I think in 1978 Updike assumed the reflexive anti-Westernism of the newly decolonized Third World was a last gasp, fated to be swept under in the inundation of pop culture and fast food and cheap consumer goods. I used to think so too; now I’m not so sure. Forty years on, Muslim opposition to the soft, seductive, soulless West of their imagination is more widespread, more entrenched than Updike could have foreseen; while in the West itself, impatience with the unevenness of our prosperity gives rise to new fanaticisms.

It remains to be seen whether we inheritors of the bourgeois order will prove to have reserves of unexpected strength on which to call.

M.

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