I have more relatives living in the USA than I have in India, I think. I also have some friends living in America. They are not recent emigrants; many are there for the second generation now. Thanks to the Facebook, I see them in pictures; most of them I never met in flesh and blood. There was a time when only the dead would be inside frames; today it is the young and the living that must be mediated through their camera lucida, or is it the mobile upload? I get to know of America through them; it is a land that allows most Indians a level of prosperity that they would otherwise never possibly have at home. And of course they love to construct those of us who stayed back as pathetic losers, technologically unsound and incompetent performers. But of America, the nation, the society, the people, the ethos, I gather nothing from these souls. To say of understanding America as a civilization, I cannot even hope to expect from my ilk. My friend Ranjita Mohanty points out that even in the case of the brilliant author, Jhumpa Lahiri, all that we gather is how the Indian community with the sorrow of exile wallow together in their mutually shared tragedy of being rootless. The woes of the Indians sound so much like the blues of the Coloured; the only difference is that while the latter were forced into slavery, the former are voluntarily slaves. So what to do? Where to know of America?
I have never gelled with Hollywood cinema, I have a difficulty in empathizing with the emotions and reflections; I also have problems in vibrating with jazz. Cinema and music, especially popular culture is invariably so contextualized in the societies that produce and consume them that it becomes difficult for a stay at home hopeless case as me to appreciate the American pop culture. However, I wanted to watch Lincoln, a man who I was taught to admire and whose photo, my grandfather, now dead for 38 years had cut and pasted on a piece of card paper and slipped under the glass on my writing table. Always look at this man, Mithu, he would say; one day you should draw power from his life. My mother was forever keen to tell me how the mothers of Abe Lincoln and Tom Edison were instrumental in the growth of their intellect; a way to make me listen to her, which I always did more out of fear of the consequences of disobedience than from a desire to be Lincoln or Edison. However, Lincoln is our household name and a film on him must be on the to-do list. So I went to watch Lincoln by Steven Spielberg.
The film focusses, not on the life of Lincoln but on a single and the most defining episode of his life, the passing of the 13th Ammendment which ends slavery in America. Lincoln is the President, he begins what we know as the Republican Party and finds himself in a state of affairs in which America is slowly transforming into a nation, albeit a federal one, and in which there is a desire of the various territories to come together. It is in this state of excitement, and not yet after a century of the Declaration of Independence, America is threatened by a civil war because one man, a hajji (don’t know the Jewish equivalent of the term) decides that inequality among people is a sin in the eyes of God. This hajji is Abe Lincoln, one with a beard and a shaved off upper lip, a very tall and gawky man, walking in a stoop, always seeming to move away from the screen than into it, into the light and who seems the happiest when playing with his young son, Tad. It is then that he meditates the best, and it is perhaps then that voices of his Conscience speaks to him as Gabriel. These voices are nothing but everyday affairs in the courtroom in his career as a lawyer, which he tells as stories to his people, even in the middle of deep crises and situations that require immediate attention. Please stop your stories, his colleagues would say, but for Lincoln these were the angelic revelations, reminding us a bit about Miss Marple who would often solve mysteries involving ladies and knights using parallels from the commonplace events around her gardener and maid ! The similarities between the Prophet and Lincoln are unmistakeable.
The insistence on equality just at a time when America is congealing into a nation threatens the very existence of this infant nation-state, albeit federalist. Yet Lincoln persists; in his dreams he finds himself aboard a ship, very fast, a motion he has not known before. Everything is dark but the light of the stars tell him that the shore is not far away. His eccentric and clairvoyant wife tells him that it is the 13th Amendment he is dreaming of, not of war. War rages all around, dead bodies pile up, in this epical destruction, thousands die, more are disabled and impaired; stop the war everyone seems to say. But Lincoln goes on; he draws on every power that the Constitution has given him and when opposition gets too much for him, he raises his voice assertively to say I am the repository of Infinite Power. People call him a tyrant and a dictator, but he goes on undeterred. Spielberg is known for his attachment to India and while many scenes are straight off from the various Amitabh Bachchan starrers, one cannot but miss the similarities from the Bhagavadgita. Like Arjuna, Lincoln too is devastated and he appeals for its end. How does one call for the end of that war which he has himself started? This strange anomaly is because his is a war to end all wars, a violence to destroy the source of violence. So, he calls for the original violence to stop, the original sin to be penanced and there will be no need for Lincoln to continue his war. Yet he is merciful as he signs pardon to condemned to death prisoners liberally.
The democrats sing praises of America, by invoking its natural beauty, its deserts, swamps, rivers and hills. But to Lincoln, the compass does not show such spaces; all it does is to point to the north. Are we a nation because of the territory we occupy? Or are we a nation because we move humanity into a direction? It is not the boundaries of land occupied that makes for a nation, it is the pilgrimage, the journey of a people that makes a nation. Many years ago in college I was asked to make a distinction between culture and civilization; I could not answer the question. Today I know that a culture with a direction becomes a civilization. The direction is the absolute, unimpeachable truth and it is to find this truth that through the 13th Ammendment to its Constitution that America will, on behalf of humanity pursue equality of all humans. America is not a nation; it is a journey and it is in the sense of a journey that it assumes its arrogance to push its case brooking no opposition.
Lincoln faces opposition but he refuses to bow down to them. Like a true Jew, he goes for the revealed truth, the self evident truth. He tells a young engineer whether he remembers the Euclid’s theorems; the young man does not but Lincoln does because Lincoln never forgets what he reads. In the theorem, if two things are equal to one another then they are equal to each other; this is a self evident truth. There is no greater call for Monotheism which is also not the call for equality. Lincoln is an extremist, for one whom means justify the end. There are bribes, and offers of plum positions for the defecting Democrat senators. There are some however who will not be broken. They are approached variously; sometimes through appeals to ethics, sometimes through appeals as a fellow Jew who has already been on Hajj (for want of knowledge of the Jewish equivalent). For one Senator who has lost his only brother to war against abolition of slavery, killed by Negro soldiers, it would be a betrayal of brotherly love if he concedes to Lincoln. For this man, the Prophet himself arrives, where is my Friend’s Home, he knocks at dusk, who sits indoors? Please open the door. Lincoln appeals why not make your loss into a gift of martyrdom, when one is dead, why not find him in the eternity of a holy war?
In the Senate men debate over laws, articulate principles of governance. In the gallery sit the friends and family of the members of the executive and sometimes the members themselves. America’s Constitution separates powers and the two wings of the government do not sit together. From the well of the Senate, the gallery looks like a picture of the Last Supper, indeed so, because immediately after the passing of the 13th Amendment, Lincoln will be assassinated. But the positioning of the visual field is suggestive; does the positioning of the figures of the Last Supper tell us that Gods watch us from the gallery as we men make our laws and do the Gods, like the executives in America, execute our laws for us, through their Invisible Hands? Indeed so, this is why it becomes so important for humans to create replica of Heaven upon earth. As the Senate puts the motion to vote, Lincoln quietly plays with Tad in his lap, together they seem to be studying the anatomy of insects. A beam of light enters through the window, telling us that these are the last few moments in the Prophet’s life. Soon, the light will claim him. The 13th Amendment is passed as spring blooms in America and Lincoln sits with his wife in a buggy, apparently a wholly enjoyable moment of peace. But his mind is away in the deserts of Jerusalem, his gaze fixed far away seeking the company of David and Soloman while his wife complaints of his indifference and injustices towards her. In this Holy War to make America the Holy Land of equality, mothers and sons have been sacrificed; so many Isaacs are sacrificed by the hands of Abraham. Mothers cry mercy; fathers demand martyrdom. We know that in the future, this will emerge as one of the greatest anomalies of American politics.
One person who steals the show is Steven, a fellow Republic Senator. He is a pragmatist and though a fervent advocate of racial equality, on the floor of the house he demands only equality for law. He is berated for his betrayal to his cause but he knows that he can at most demand equality for law if the 13th Amendment has to pass the vote. When accosted Steven says that men are not born equal like his opponents who are nimble of wit and impermeable to reason are not his equals, unfortunately before law they must be. Steven is a believer in equality for all, like Lincoln, but where the latter pursues his case with a Prophetic zeal, Steven manoeuvres strategically. While Lincoln’s housekeeper is a Negro, Steven’s wife is a Negro, though outwardly she is only his housekeeper. Steven may be a greater believer in racial equality than even Lincoln. Equality would make the American home, where men can have wives and not have to keep mistresses.
Mrs Keckley, Lincoln’s housekeeper asks him why he is so attached to the cause of Coloured? Does he know any of them personally? No, says the President, but after Freedom, he would very much like to know some. To him, the ascetic of Moses, all men are equal and especially the coloured, the originals of Africa, with who Moses crosses the parted sea into the Holy Land. Lincoln leads America into being that Holy Land. Lincoln’s politics is shaded with autocratic dictatorship but this is for the good he alone has seen; ahead of the consciousness of his age, in the dream in which he experiences a speed as never before, in a ship of Time that bridges two eras of mankind, one before equality and one after that. As the dead body of the shot President lies upon his bed, we see his knees bent; too tall for him to fit in the standard dimensions of his furniture, too large to fit into a world of his times. The misfit is Lincoln’s tragedy which makes him in the comeliness of spring to think about a walk with David and Solomon in Jerusalem.
Lincoln was resisted; his entire ethos has been resisted in America from time to time. Judaist transcendentalism and nihilism has been contested with this-wordly Protestant ethics and flanked by Orthodox pragmatism. During Europe’s period of anti-Zionism, America too had its rabid nationalism, Japan was attacked because Jews were supposed to have flown money out of America and parked in the banks of Tokyo. Time and again the clash of fundamentalists has threatened the fabric of the nation. Jazz and hippy generation sought Hindu wisdom again for that unity which keeps diversity together. Swami Vivekananda has been such a fever in America for speaking on the unity of religions and many a time, Semitic and messianic spirit of the United States has made it the big global bully that it often is. One cannot understand America until one understands its intensely spiritual nature. All kinds of spiritualisms do very well in the US; the Americans flock to gurus, saints and clairvoyants and holymen everywhere. My uncles would tell me that when people are very rich,as the Americans are, they seek spiritualism. How wrong they were! For the American, spiritualism is the very essence of their articulation; they would like to use transcendental terms in order to understand the world. The film Lincoln reveals that to me as clear as daylight.
A man in his early forties was sitting two seats away from me, all by himself watching the film. He seemed to me to be a regular mall visitor. I sensed that towards the end when Lincoln bids adieu to his colleagues and leaving his pair of gloves behind walks out of the door into his assassination as if he is entering a prayer room where he needs to wash his hands and offer prayers in bare hands, the man was sniffing. His sniffs grew into sobs as Lincoln lay dead and no later than the title cards appeared, he left with hurried steps as if to avoid being noticed crying. What an emotional man I thought. Then suddenly I sensed a loose end in the film. What happened to Lincoln’s son, Robert? The film did not have anything on that. I checked in the wiki this morning, it seems that Robert wept openly at his father’s death bed.