Thursday, January 10, 2008

American Pharaoh

Three Novels of Ancient Egypt is a trilogy of work by Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. What it shows in exquisite detail is the interdependency of the masses that exist within the hinges of history and the illustrious pharaohs who lord over them. From a modernist perspective we could look with a mixture of disdain and pity at the multitudes that sacrificed themselves in going to war and building pyramids to honor a remote despot. But it would be a mistake to think that the peasants who worshiped Pharaoh actually believed he was a god who could not be felled with a weapon or succumb to disease and old age. Rather, what they understood was that pharaoh was a vessel for the blessings that the gods had bestowed on their nation. And in honoring this earthly form they were acknowledging a divine presence outside of themselves for the universal good.

All public figures are objects of mass transference. As an emergency physician I am regularly the subject of transference issues on a tiny scale. However, this is an essential part of the therapeutic process. Patients imbue me with qualities and values that I have in short supply in my personal life. Although years of intense study and training have made me competent, my modest power as a healer ascends from the patient to me through this mechanism.

Barack Obama's ascendancy is not mere idolatry. It is instead a small measure of salvation for a nation that has slipped from a position of unequaled dominance for fifty years into the uncertainty of decline. If this man becomes president, what are the unrealized possibilities for the country? It isn't the end of racism or inequality. Nor is it the answer to the calamities which Craig Nulan copiously documents. But it is a singular and fragile achievement for a nation which struggles to create institutions that express the popular will with all its pockmarks and wrinkles.

The coronation of Obama would quite logically and erroneously be dismissed by some as ephemera. Unlike the messianic appeal of Ron Paul, progressive interests don't appear perfectly aligned with the man. In a modern culture where theater is at least as important as substance Obama has an exuberant style of his own. It remain to be seen, however, if this can be coupled with a popular initiative to create an enduring and proud legacy.

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