Is the World Riding a Wild Horse? Read Mark Helprin to Understand American Republicanism


An Elephant, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1637

by James Warner

Helprin’s latest novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow, can be read as an elegy for the American Century. Helprin’s emphasis on invidividual responsibility, as well as his backwards-lookingness, over-the-topness, and magical thinking, give us a window into the Republican Party he supports.

Mark Helprin was born in 1946, but the heroes of his novels are typically of an earlier generation. When he writes of Smedjebakken in Memoir from Antproof Case that he “was a man of an era that had passed, and as with everyone in this position, his ill-fittedness sometimes became illumination,” Helprin must have his own position somewhat in mind. Helprin values old-fashioned things such as love at first sight, moral absolutes, and an honorable death – he opposes collectivism, connectivity, consolidation, conformity, and comfort. “Central heating has taken the edge off civilization,” says a character in his novel Freddy and Fredericka, while Memoir from Antproof Case makes a similar case against coffee.

This kind of conservative feels the world lost its way long ago. The hero of Helprin’s story “Sail Shining in White” states that “the whole world, and all of time – sometime in my lifetime, and I don’t know exactly when, it must have been a wide and diffuse line – crossed the line nonetheless between the two great ages. First was the age of patience, into which my mother and father brought me. And now we are in the age of impatience, which I have never loved.”

Much of Helprin’s work investigates this transition. Even when he uses present settings, his protagonists are throwbacks to another era. They are uxorious aesthetes who have fought behind enemy lines. They are good with analog machinery and at thinking tactically. The hero of In Sunlight and in Shadow, characteristic of the breed, returns to Manhattan after serving in World War Two, buys a Manet, falls in love with an heiress, and faces down the mob. The novel has something of the sparkle and gravitas of a 1940s Hollywood movie, the hero delivering quips that might have worked for Humphrey Bogart, like “Strange to see a Mercedes without bullet holes.”

Another line, “Luxury not only makes me uncomfortable, it frightens me,” is prescient if one believes that the greatest danger to the twentieth-century U.S. was of being undermined by its own consumerism. Luxury has traditionally been seen as a threat — by Cato the Elder, for one example – since it corrodes self-discipline and hence endangers the body politic. Helprin is nostalgic for generations who he sees as toughened – much of what others consider progress, Helprin views as an insidious weakening process, rather as he compares marrying into money to “the lid sliding over a sarcophagus.”

Stunning similes are one of Helprin’s specialties. Who else would compare the sound of a baseball stadium to “an ocean of angry rabbis,” or the ascent of the soul when the body dies to what happens when you light the wrapper of an Amaretti cookie? Edward Said called it a prerogative of late style “to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradiction between them,” and in this sense Helprin’s style was late from the first, and is getting later. His heroes are able to remain enchanted by the world even while meeting a violent death — where the disenchantment comes through is in Helprin’s rejection of the age he actually lives in. Helprin senses that total commitment was more common in the past than it is now, and that it was easier to make peace with oneself. Through all his work runs the conviction that it is more important to be tested than protected .

He sees life as a fairytale, cruel yet beautiful, requiring decisive action. His mix of absurd humor with anti-progressive vitriol recalls J.B. Morton’s Beachcomber columns from the 1920s and 1930s, castigating the present for not being as glorious as the past has retrospectively become — the humor of “Dead Model Sues Race Horse,” a fake newspaper headline that appears in a couple of Helprin’s books, is very Beachcomber. In writing like this, reverence for things our society under-values is balanced with scorn for those it over-values, and the work’s true spirituality depends as much or more on the farcical passages as on the more elevated or purple sections – truly spiritual people always go in for zany dialog.

Helprin believes we can rise by our own efforts or perish contentedly in the attempt, and are hampered by any system of ideas that distracts us from this endeavor. To read A Solider of the Great War is to be reminded that a novel should not merely target some demographic, but can help us know how to live. By comparison, the good guys in In Sunlight and in Shadow are more virtuous, the villains more villainous, the gulf between life’s beauties and dangers more vertiginous than usual. The moral contrasts are starker, and Helprin is becoming sterner… are the comparisons he draws with the past really fair, given that he is comparing what he chooses to remember of the past with what he can’t avoid about the present?

As with Rudyard Kipling, Helprin’s foreign policy hawkishness stems ultimately from his horror of ever having to submit to any external authority. His principles – “The ones who are always on your side, or so they think, are the ones who keep you down” (Winter’s Tale), “Use riches only to increase vitality, for the moment you lean back on them you are lost” (Memoir From Antproof Case) – align him with those who feel horror at the prospect of the U.S. becoming more of a welfare state and less of a superpower. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, he argues the U.S. is losing its naval edge against the Chinese. He has written speeches pro bono for several Republican politicians, although his words seem wasted on any Republican later than Theodore Roosevelt. Perhaps it is telling that Freddy and Fredericka is nostalgic for the 1996 election – the last U.S. election that wasn’t close, the candidate Helprin served as a speechwriter losing decisively albeit, in Helprin’s fictionalized version, gloriously.

Commentators whose party just lost are prone to condemn a nation for no longer being what it ought to be, and there are many Republican examples of this attitude online right now. Helprin is not over-fond of victory anyway – in Digital Barbarism he notes glumly that “if you keep your eyes open, the light of triumph is always strong enough briefly to illuminate the darkness that lies ahead and at the end of which is death.”

Since, by some accident, I received political mail from both U.S. parties during the 2012 election season, I know that both parties claim their supporters are “ordinary Americans like you” while the other party is kept afloat only by billionaires and special interests, and that both parties believe their candidate was motivated by noble principles and his rival by cynical calculation. During the election, the story circulated over the Internet of a woman in a polling booth in Florida who was overheard changing her vote from Romney to Obama at the insistence of her young daughter who was accompanying her, an insta-parable that recalls King Edward VIII’s remark, “The thing that impresses me the most about America is the way parents obey their children.” Was the parent in question wise or otherwise to give in to the younger generation?

When Obama in his victory speech mentioned another young girl, with leukemia, who had health insurance as result of the legislation Obama fought for, I had the unusual feeling of having my emotional buttons pushed by a politician who it nonetheless seemed to me had earned the right to push those buttons. Although adversity is, up to a point, good for people, it’s disturbing how unevenly it’s distributed – to which Helprin would perhaps counter that attempts at redistribution trespass into God’s domain. A few months ago I heard a curmudgeon in a San Francisco café predict that, if Obama won, the U.S. would become a “European socialist country” – he was not being quite accurate, but perhaps the tide has turned against the Republicans in their long and energetic rearguard action – unparalleled in any other Western country – against government healthcare. How might one weigh the tangible benefits of Obamacare against the broader question of principle Helprin sees, the problem that, by diminishing risk, a society reduces the opportunities to learn courage?

Perhaps nations lose something as they become richer and more regulated, yet the benefits of present and future adversity are far less readily apparent than those of past adversity. Helprin was apparently a sickly child himself, which may partly explain his fixation with fighting one’s own battles. His relationship to the good old days is something like an Islamic fundamentalist’s relationship to the pre-modern Muslim world – he exalts that time in a way that would not be possible if he had actually lived in it. Bundled with his sense that his own generation is unworthy of its predecessors comes a sort of death wish, or at least a fondness for heroic acts of self-sacrifice. Helprin’s heroes would be delighted to die in combat while spurning the modern world – an example of the way we come to resemble our enemies.

A character in In Sunlight and in Shadow says of the Bretton Woods agreements – “Economists are paid to pretend they understand such things so that people will think the world isn’t riding a wild horse, when in fact it is.” Helprin is only cryptic when he chooses to be, and it is misleading to pull the more mystical imagery that seasons his novels out of its context, since much of its force comes from its strategic positioning within a story. But part of what Helprin is saying here is that the path of the world is absurd, majestic, unpredictable, inexplicable, and he echoes the Talmud, wherein an apostate asks the Rabbi Saphra, “If a person has a wild horse, is it likely that he would put his dearest friend upon it, that he might be thrown and hurt?” No apostate, Helprin would put his friend on the wild horse and send it into the eye of the storm.

Piece originally published at Open DemocracyCreative Commons License

About the Author:

James Warner is the author of All Her Father’s Guns, a Bay Area novel, published in 2011 by Numina Press. His short stories have appeared in many publications. His personal website is here.