Sunday, January 8, 2017

Is Trump a Trumpist?

The current issue of The New Yorker  features a superb essay by Kelefa Sanneh, concerning the POTUS-to-be (currently just the PEOTUS, though acting more like an emperor).  There are too many fine passages for us to cite just one or two -- best to go read the whole article on their website.   Nor is there any point in my indulging in political commentary of our own:  I am not a credentialed politico, our Junior Woodchuck Blogger’s License©  being restricted to topics of Theologia mathematica, penguins, and pataphysical incunabula (qq.v.).   Yet I shall venture two remarks, the first in the capacity of someone who has subscribed to that magazine for over half a century by now (and once, as a teen, spent a week at the New York Public Library reading back-issues beginning with 1925);  the other qua philologist.

(1) The New Yorker began as a magazine of gentle humor and amused observation.  Over the decades, it has grown more serious, more spare, and focusing more on nonfiction.   Even The Talk of the Town, the opening section, and long the precinct of the badaud and the flâneur,  now typically opens with a political piece (as it does this week, though Sanneh’s offering  quite puts it in the shade).   Yet in the course of his discussion, Sanneh observes, in passing, one of the oldest characteristic tics of the Talk of the Town style:  the small, telling detail that, without trespassing at all upon snark, nor overtly satirizing the person in question, does present the reader with an opportunity of drawing his own conclusions.  Describing a conclave at the Heritage Foundation:

Every seat in the auditorium was taken, one of them by Edwin Meese, Attorney General under President Reagan, who was in the front row, and whose phone was almost certainly the source of a pleasant symphonic ringtone that briefly intruded upon the proceedings.

(2)  Towards the end of the discussion, the author asks:  “Is Trump a Trumpist?”  The sense of that deliberately paradoxical formulation is that the kaleidoscopic sequence of Mr. Trump’s obiter dicta  may not cohere into any firm worldview (some observers called him “a powerful but inconstant champion of his namesake philosophy).  But the form of the formulation  harks back to a tradition of similar epigrams, whose ancestry we traced in an earlier note,  reprinted for convenience  here.

~     ~     ~

Theodor Reik, a Viennese collegue of Freud for thirty years, recounts:

Freud once smilingly said to me:  Moi, je ne suis pas un Freudiste.”
(Why did he say it in French?  It is perhaps a variation of a French quotation that is unknown to me.)
Theodor Reik, Listening with the Third Ear (1948), final chapter

A clue lies in the morphology.  The usual adjective in French is not Freudiste, but freudien.   Freud was quite clearly alluding to an analogous quote -- again in French, yet again  from a native speaker of German:  Karl Marx, who, towards the end of his life, famously stated “Je ne suis pas un marxiste.”
In both cases, these major thinkers were rejecting the excesses of their acolytes.

Naturally the philologer  cannot stop here.  Why the devil would Marx have said the thing in French?   Clearly he must be echoing yet another quotation, one which eventually must be set in a purely francophone context.

With a bit of research and some help from Google, we were able to determine the source:  Napoleon, in exile on Elba, is reported to have said (shaking his head),
            “Je ne suis pas  bonapartiste.”
Here the semantics is rather different:  He has not retrospectively rejecting those who followed him in his prime, but recognizing how far he himself has fallen.

Surprisingly, the trail does not end there.    Although this is the earliest recording such French quotation, it exactly echoes an earlier quotation from King Alfred (Ælfrēd se Grēata),

            “Ech nam Ælfrēdsmann.”

And there the trail goes faint:  yet it winds down through the dark ages, all the way back to Athens, where Plato was once heard to state:

            “Ego ouk eimi Platonistes.”

(We could go further, but suspect that our readers have been neglecting their Hittite.)

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