Last week I met the President, and discovered I’m not cynical after all. I’m as surprised as you are.
I'm not usually one to be starstruck. But I can't deny that my meeting with our once and future president three days before his reelection left me in something of a euphoric tizzy (euphoric enough, clearly, to eschew embarrassment and use the word "tizzy" to describe it). Emotionally and energetically, I bounced somewhere between one of the less histrionic teenage girls watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and a small boy about ready to open a big present on Christmas Day--already knowing it's exactly what he wanted but never dreamed he'd get.
When I say "meeting," I mean the customary three seconds one gets with The Man as he makes the rounds after a rally, this particular communion having just wrapped up in a horse barn on the fairgrounds in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio (truly the Heart of the Heart of it all--both the capital and the dead geographic center of the state.) So it wasn't exactly the high-level policy discussion I'd love to have with him about, say, the National Defense Authorization Act or his inexplicable jones to shut down medicinal marijuana dispensaries. But I met him. We exchanged words. Then he moved on.
I saw the evidence of my unabashed exultation later that night on CSPAN, after my father recorded the network's replay of the event. Even viewed from dozens of feet away, my posture and my smile bordered on the absurd; I was showing more teeth than any horse in the barn ever had. I was shocked. As an experienced, urbane metrotextual, hadn't I developed a greater sense of The Cool than that? Not in a detached, hipster ironic way (I'm far too old for such shenanigans), but: holy %^%! Batman! I'm not jaded!
I've conversed with my share of remarkable men in my life: world-famous, top-of-their-game, sure-to-be-hall-of-famer rock stars; pioneering, Oscar-winning, studio-founding animation visionaries; Pulitzer Prize winning writers with whom I was fortunate to study. I've engaged my fair share of remarkable women as well, though in the realms of what the world considers "remarkable," my own chromosomal composition seems to be something of a man magnet, Annie Liebowitz aside. (Bring it on, Maya Angelou!)And I've never been very plussed by it all. They are, after all, merely men. Mortal like you and me, their significant or even history-making accomplishments ultimately meaning no more to them than the less remarkable details of everyone else's lives, once the worms (or the incinerators) have their way in a few decades. And I suppose I've usually regarded these remarkable peeps as peers ; I've grown beyond the adolescentia of hero worship, and I've always considered myself (and most people) fairly remarkable as well--even if one’s remarkability is not widely recognized.
So in that magic moment in that unremarkable horse barn, I found myself perplexed. As the president’s lanky silhouette sashayed through the spotlights and took its place twenty feet in front of us--before I’d even realized that, yes, since we were on the fence line his rounds would likely take him right to us during the meet and greet--I wondered why I was so moved. Then, as he said his hello and the crowd erupted, the explanation struck me: Walter Benjamin. That’s why. Of course! Walter Benjamin! Or, more precisely, his conception of “aura.” (Yes, I'm that kind of intellectual/nerd/geek/auto-pedantic Arschloch. While the leader of the free world was working the stage twenty feet in front of me, I’m thinking of literary critics and their brainchildren.) Aura!(emphasis on “awe”...): that ineffable extra something that only the original can provide--whether it’s a person or a work of art. That X factor so often denied us these days as physical presence dwindles, subsumed in a culture mediated by reproduction and simulation, a world of replications and recordings and web sites, an onslaught of disembodied everythings giving us anything and everything we want anytime at all. (You see? Even that obnoxious onslaught of words was a grand--or not-so-grand--act of mediation between the Real and this Abstracted Expression Thereof.) Voices on the phone. Images on the tube. Words on the screen divorced from the presence of the body of the brain that brought them into being. Words divorced even from the page which, although still alphabetic abstraction, is at least anchored by tangibility. It's all a grand simulation. A dance of representation. And we seem to like it like that. Presence doesn’t elude us. We elude it, even when it tries to chase us down. We eschew the actual in favor of the abstract, experience in favor of object, corporeality in favor of virtuality. The invisible glow of aura that has infused human interactions and creation since, well, creation has been replaced by the all-too-visible glow of LCD screens as they cast "reality" at us like a demi-urgic video projector.
Don't get me wrong: despite the Unabomber Hir-Suit that currently adorns my face, I'm no Luddite. But that morning in the horse barn made me feel what we all seem to be missing, whether we’re aware of it or not. Aura. Of a friend or family member or work of art--or of the ostensible leader of the free world. Because aura changes everything. The President of the Screens is nothing more than a two-dimensional cipher, all too easy to idolize or demonize, love or loathe as we project our fantasies and our failures onto “him,” this unreal and ultimately mediated being who we pretend controls our fate as a nation and as individuals. But the President of Presence, with a brow that sweats and a voice that's hoarse and eyes that seem to actually see you and your own aura as his hand grasps yours in appreciation and solidarity: you might not like his policies, but you can’t deny his humanity--as the ultimate Otherizing machines known as the modern media are so good at helping us do.
I've probably seen as many images of the President than of anyone else in the world. But there in the wilds of the real? There in the barn? A whole alternate reality. Unlike anything else I've experienced. The closest analogue, despite the gulfs of power, was a David Foster Wallace reading I attended about a year before his death. (Then again: perhaps the gulf isn’t that wide. The President can do anything in the world he wants to, literally. Wallace could do anything in the world he wanted to do, figuratively. He could bend words to his will and make them do anything they were capable of doing, just like Hendrix could do with a guitar.) Readings aren't usually my thing, but this one was remarkable: warm and empathetic, devoid of the detached intellectualism his linguistic pyrotechnics had prepared me to expect. And then came the micro- meeting when I spoke with him afterwards. I had no book to sign. I wanted no advice. I simply thanked him for his presence, saying that while I had always appreciated his work, I now appreciated his humanity. (if only he could have appreciated it enough himself.)
In other words: I thanked him for sharing his aura. Which was something I never could have felt by reading his words on the page, those bastard step-children representations of our thoughts and our voice, those reproduced signs and symbols that are stripped of the humanity that conceived them the moment they go to press. Transcending our oral tradition may have been a boon to our advancement, technologically and culturally. But I’m often not sure what it’s done to our humanity. The Wallace of the Page may be a technical and conceptual marvel, an eternal inscriber in stone for all ages. But I got to experience the Wallace of the Presence: a real-time, live-action hunter-gatherer of vowels and consonants, summoning us around the fire as the shadows flickered across the walls, grunting out tales that would sustain us through the long nights and impossible days of our short, brutish, and nasty existences. The aura of the artist is what we want. It’s what we always want. It’s why we go to live shows rather than blast the latest record at home, where the beer is cheap and there are no bathroom lines. It’s why we prefer a canvas full of paint that touched the brush that touched the hand rather than an immaculately produced print. We want the aura. We want the connection. It’s what it means to be human. At least it used to be.
Again: I’m not hoping for some armageddon meltdown to toss us back to the stone age. I’m not wanting to lose my library of books or music or photographic memories. (Let alone the Internet connection that’s letting you read this.) But without aura, it’s a two-dimensional world, literally, emotionally, and philosophically. And something in me laments that all of our advancements haven’t been satisfied with complementing the real--they’ve wanted to replace it. In a very real--and unreal--ways. It makes me think of the live concert albums that were so big in the seventies and eighties. To use an old but befitting analogue simile: it’s like our lives have gone from real to reel, safely memorialized for all time on a spool of tape. Like we’re living in a recording of our own existence, addicted to the simulated and suspicious of the real.
But listen to me rant and rail. And feel free to tell this simulacrum of my thoughts to shut up. Because what was I doing in that horse barn, as the awe-ra rained down upon me? I was already half gone, thinking of this piece of writing, somewhat detached from the experience itself as I hurled myself in the abstracted abyss of concept and language---the first great “triumph” of civilization, the one that traded immediacy for eternality, presence for representation, singularity for universality. There’s no going back. All we can do is dive in.