Two Truths Are Told – James Comey’s Higher Loyalty

James Comey is clearly someone who values truth and transparency. Looking through the window of his book, we witness a meeting in the Oval Office during the George W. Bush presidency. Sitting there at the very centre of American government, amongst a group of ordinary people trying to figure things out, Comey realises that this is all there is. The implied question arising is one that has come up repeatedly down the ages – surely the last word in authority shouldn’t lie with people like us.

The search for leadership, for guidance in life, has shaped human society. With human judgement so imperfect, it’s not surprising that the idea of supernatural leadership evolved. The Romans considered their leaders as gods. When this illusion proved impossible to maintain, divine intervention continued in the sense that leaders were appointed by God. Eventually that idea also failed to withstand scrutiny. Parliamentary rebels beheaded the “divinely appointed” English king, Charles I in 1649, and the rise of secular government began. The English political settlement enshrining this type of civil governance in law – the Bill of Rights of 1689 – was a major influence on the writing of the Constitution of the United States.

However, even after all this time, the desire for leadership beyond that offered by flawed humanity has not gone away.

The title of James Comey’s book suggests a search for a new higher authority, acceptable to the modern world. He finds this in two things – firstly in the accumulated, dispassionate wisdom which we call the law, and secondly in a regard for truth. Other people in America it seems, have expressed a nostalgia for divine certainty by electing a president who is deluded and dishonest enough to say he has all the answers. A Higher Truth documents a collision between these two different efforts to find a way back to reliable leadership. A reader will hopefully come out on the side of the rule of law and adherence to truth. James Comey’s book is honest, moving and could easily serve as a reference on effective leadership.

There is however, one “critical” point I would like to make. This is given in the spirit of a contribution to a debate – responding to the respect for varied opinion which is so obvious in the pages of A Higher Truth. There is a contradiction in this account which is not fully explored. America idolises the individual as the repository of moral good. James Comey himself does this. He refers to a time at college which required a strong individual to stand up to the harassment of an unpopular student. Comey bitterly regrets that even though he suffered serious bullying at school, he wasn’t able to be that person. Comey sees that he should have followed the advice drummed into him by his parents. He should have stood up to the group and followed his own moral compass. America admires this idea of the maverick. Now I enjoy Die Hard movies as much as anyone, and I admire people who stand up to a group behaving badly, but the glorification of the maverick hero, taken to an unwise extreme, played a significant role in the selection of a totally unsuitable president in 2016.

I am British, which is a different perspective. Britain with its ancient institutions and sometimes stuffy ways tends to be more Shakespeare than John McLean in its outlook. Shakespeare, who Comey quotes early in A Higher Truth, would not be a natural writer of Die Hard movies. His political mavericks – Macbeth for example – tend to cause trouble rather than restore justice. I read A Higher Truth and wondered how an American author could see the individual as the last word in moral judgement, and then also present government institutions as guarding against rogue modern day Macbeths. Perhaps America needs to come to terms with the fact that its maverick myth, forged during difficult pioneering times, might not be so relevant anymore. As I say, the American veneration of the maverick individual contributed to the election of Donald Trump. It also contributes, incidentally, to the American habit of individuals carrying guns. I don’t think A Higher Loyalty really explored the irony of a thoughtful author defending America’s government institutions while also buying into the cult of individuality which threatens them. If we go back to the bullying at college episode, we recall that this was presented as a personal lapse. You could equally say it was an institutional failure, since Comey’s own description shows the college thoughtlessly creating an isolated, unsupervised dormitory, where bullying was more likely. It’s the same on a larger scale – a shooting is a personal failing on the part of someone with a gun, and an institutional failure on the part of a society which allows easy access to guns.

The balance of the individual and the group is always a shifting one. The debate continues, and James Comey is clearly a man who enjoys a debate in its finest sense, as a sharing of viewpoints so that we all see the world in a better way. I applaud his book.

Night of the Literary Dead

George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo initially struck me as an odd, unclassifiable book. It starts out as a kind of bizarre historical fiction, the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son William kicking off a story set in a surreal half way house between life and death. Various individuals, unwilling to move on from their lives, inhabit the bardo, a word sometimes used in Buddhism to describe a transitional state between death and rebirth. The sense of oddness is reinforced by an unusual narrative style, where a myriad of narrators tell the story with credits given in the manner of a history text book.

Within the first twenty pages, however, I started to experience a nagging sense of familiarity. By about half way through, I realised Lincoln in the Bardo wasn’t so unidentifiable after all. It was, for all intents and purposes, a zombie story. Even though the Bardo’s inhabitants weren’t portrayed in an overt way as typical zombies, they are the undead, and seemed to have a place in a long tradition, stretching from ancient folklore, through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe, numerous stories by H.P. Lovecraft, and the blind walking dead of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Emerging from all that, the zombie story became a place where writers could explore anxieties related to science, industrialisation, globalisation.

Lincoln in the Bardo is set at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Lincoln in one section thinks of his lost son as an intricate machine, and wonders about the nature of the magical spark which allowed him to live. Other characters populating the precincts of the undead seem trapped in the mechanical patterns of their past lives. A shop keeper appears stuck in the routine of his lost working day, as does a musician, a professor and an overzealous soldier. Former slaves seem to either live out their submission endlessly; or former slaves and former white bigots are condemned to continue their fight endlessly.

The portrayal of three former clubmen, in particular, shows how difficult it is to stop your life settling into an enervating pattern. These jolly bachelors, who lost their lives as a result of silly pranks, appear trapped in their fixed determination never to be tied down to any obligation at all.

We are clearly in zombie story territory here, exploring the complex business of staying alive via a story set amongst characters who are neither alive nor dead. The writing has a very organic quality, ethereal at times in portraying earthly beauty, then plumbing the depths of physical degradation. This is set against that dry sense of quoting each narrator as if they are a reference in a text book. It all makes for an interesting, intellectual twist on the zombie tale. Even intellectual readers need zombies it seems. Perhaps with their quotes, references and essays, the struggle to stay vibrant and alive is especially relevant to the intellectuals. I’m reminded of the literature professor in Educating Rita, who found hairdresser Rita a breath of fresh air, even as Rita herself tried to escape the boredom of her humdrum life and her taste in low brow novels.

Lincoln in the Bardo takes the low brow zombie genre and turns it into a strange, high brow novel. It’s a bit like an unfulfilled Professor Frank Bryant meeting an unfulfilled Rita, the two of them finding mutual benefit.