Monday, August 19, 2013

Graven Images (O'Hara)

Politics are not logical. We often think of politicians as hypocritical, self-serving, and corrupt. In many cases, we would be right. Even politicians who start out with big visions of making a difference end up disillusioning us by failing to make any real change. But political debate that leads to reasonable results that represent the people is an ideal at best, especially in this day and age. It is largely about who you know, whose side you're on, and in some cases, how much money you have.

John O'Hara's story "Graven Image" is about politics. A man called Browning meets at an exclusive Washington club with a man only known as the Under Secretary. He is looking for a job, knows exactly what he wants, and believes correctly that the Under Secretary can help him. But there is one odd thing that stands in the way. Browning is obviously a member of a secret society that he only refers to as the "Pork". The Under Secretary had sought admission to this club at one time, but was rejected. This is an obvious sore spot that Browning has to handle with diplomatic grace, which he does--at least initially. At the request of the Under Secretary, he pulls out a keyring that has a small, golden pig suspended from it. And here we have the "graven image", loaded with obvious associations of greed. The Beatles were not the first to think of "rich white piggies".

The magic of the graven image gets Browning what he wants, until he lets it slip that the Under Secretary never could have hoped to be admitted to that society, and the whole deal falls apart in that moment, a hallucinatory puff of smoke. Here today, and gone five minutes later.

At a dinner with friends the other night, someone brought up the behaviors of the upper and upper-middle classes. She found their behavior to be unnatural--almost every normal subject is taboo, especially among women. I recalled an expensive lunch at an upper class club, where no topic was appropriate except gardening. There is a lack of familiarity, as though their status must act as a wall keeping out any normal interactions with "regular" people. They seem to have a language all their own that is adept at saying nothing at all about anything of importance. My friend noted that the more she learned about the actual lives of the upper class women, the freakier it got. The kinds of life issues that hid behind mansion doors was crazier than anyone could imagine, and not in a fun way. Like any group, it's impossible to make a generalization based on our limited experience. But this weird social etiquette does exist, regardless of what it may or may not hide.

I thought of this with regard to Browning's failure. He continually "plays the game" with the Under Secretary, and does well. He falls when he decides to talk to the Under Secretary as though he is a regular person, a good friend willing to look at past failures. This moment of familiarity loses him the thing he is seeking. Browning is like a magician that is seeking material rather than spiritual results. His golden pig has a totemistic quality; it is something clearly coveted by the Under Secretary, a sign of status and power. Magic "performed" for material ends is usually less than satisfactory, even if someone gets what they want. And politics is this kind of magic--a jumble of words that have no meaning to ordinary people, that brings about dubious material results. This kind of success is short-sighted and illusory, and perhaps that is the moral of this story. What one gains through such manipulation can be lost in a moment.

Of course, the story could be a reflection of O'Hara's own graven image of a secret society--Yale University. O'Hara was an American writer who had great academic promise, but was unable to afford Yale when his father died an untimely death. It was a sore spot to him the rest of his life, and may have affected his personality. He was described as "irascible" and bad-tempered. Yale apparently refused to give him an honorary degree because he wanted it. While psychologizing an author's motives is not usually useful, there might be an obvious parallel here to the thorn in O'Hara's side.

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