Whimsy Under Fire
An Essay on Ariel Dorfman, New World Author
By Jonah Raskin
No contemporary intellectual and author has condemned torture, exile and dictatorship more vigorously than Ariel Dorfman, who was born in Argentina, raised in Chile and who has lived and worked in the U.S.A. ever since 1985, two years after General Augusto Pinochet and his allies, including the CIA, overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende.
A child of the New World who has had a faith that a “new world” might still be born from the ashes of the old world, Dorfman is as serious as professors come, and, as a writer, he means business.
But one of his most attractive gifts, if one can call it that, has been his sense of whimsy that’s apparent in the titles and the content of two of his most entertaining and illuminating books: How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971); and The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, the Reader’s Digest, and other false friends do to our minds (1983).
Now, that sense of whimsy that carried him through the seventeen-years of the Pinochet dictatorship, along with the administrations of Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II, and Bill Clinton is under fire. Still, Dorfman’s whimsy has not vanished entirely.
In fact, it’s apparent in the title and in some of the essays in his new book, Homeland Security Ate My Speech: Messages from the End of the World, just published by OR, and a welcome addition to the shelf of books that Dorfman has written over the past forty-six-years.
Anyone familiar with his work, including his poems, short stories and plays, especially Death and the Maiden, will probably want to read his most recent book, and trace the bumpy intellectual journey he has made in the age of Donald Trump.
In the Introductory essay, “Grieving for America,” there is little if any whimsy. Instead, there’s an abiding sense of loss, gloom and doom.
“I am haunted by the fear that the end of humanity is closer than ever before,” Dorfman writes, “that our species could in a matter of hours disappear through nuclear annihilation or due to an extinction that plays out more slowly and just as inexorably as an overheated planet spins towards death.”
Dorfman doesn’t want to depress readers; quite the opposite. Part three of Homeland Security offers “models of resistance from the past” in essays about Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein and Sister Maura, a missionary from the U.S. who was beaten, raped and tortured, along with three other missionaries, by soldiers in the El Salvadorian army in 1980. Part three also offers essays on Cervantes and Herman Melville, who, Dorfman argues, offered a “basic message to America (and to the world)” which was “to wake up.”
Other essays about writers such as Faulkner and about books and villains in literature, including Shakespeare’s Iago, are scattered throughout the book. In fact, Dorfman finds inspiration in the past and relevance in Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, and The Sound and the Fury.
But perhaps the most thought provoking of all the essays in the book is “Alice in Leftland: Will You, Won’t You Dance,” which is about Lewis Carroll and his masterpiece, Alice in Wonderland. For Dorfman, the bottom line is this: “What we should rescue, above all, from Alice in Wonderland is its subversive, rambunctious humor.”
He goes on to say that we should “recognize and embrace” the book’s “carnavalesque energy.”
Readers have been doing just that ever since Alice first appeared in print in 1865, at a time when the United States, having just endured the Civil War, wasn’t really ready for “rambunctious humor.” It wasn’t for another nineteen-years that Mark Twain’s subversive, comedic masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was published.
In a significant aside, Dorfman points out that there is a “tendency” on the left toward “heavy, ponderous solemnity, as if all the tragedies of history were weighing us down.” Instead, he argues that we ought to “extol the sheer joy that accompanies the certainty that we need not leave the world as we found it.”
The next-to-the-last essay in the book is titled, “How we Overcame Tyranny Before: Take Heart, Friends.”
Clearly Dorfman wants to inspire and rally the troops.
He also seems to want to inject himself with a sense of hope, as he grieves for America and wonders seriously if humanity has come to “the end of the world.”
Beneath the surface of Homeland Security there’s a tone that sounds heavy and ponderous and that threatens to pull the entire work down with it.
It would be a shame if Dorfman lost all his whimsy. It would be a loss, not just for him personally, but for all of us who have lived through torture, exile, dictatorship, civil war and the corruptions and lies of everyday life.
Please don’t fall prey to the mood that struck you, Mr. Dorfman, soon after Trump’s election, when you felt, you say, “stupefied, astonished, sickened.”
To surrender to that mood would be to surrender to Trump, his administration and his ardent supporters.
Please, Mr. Dorfman, don’t give up your whimsy. And remember Donald Duck, the Lone Ranger and the empire’s old clothes that never seem to go out of style.
Jonah Raskin is the author of The Mythology of Imperialism and A Terrible Beauty, along with poetry chapbooks such as “More Poems, Better Poems,” and “Auras,” and the noir murder mystery, Dark Land, Dark Mirror.