- Charles Brockden Brown takes on Donald Trump



This is the sixth part of The Next Thrilling Chapter. The epigraph is taken from the novel, Wieland, by Charles Brockden Brown. The epigraphs for chapters 2, 5, 10, 12 and 16 are taken from the same source. 



Charles Brockden Brown was, as far as I know, the first professional writer of fiction in the United States. I first became aware of him when I read H. P. Lovecraft’s essay on Supernatural Horror in Literature. I hesitated at that time to follow the recommendation because, while Lovecraft allowed that Brown contrived powerful scenes conveying a weird atmosphere, he also acknowledged that Brown’s plots turned on phenomena that might seem, in a later age, trivial and faintly ridiculous. When I finally conquered my trepidation, and read Wieland, I was sufficiently captivated (and traumatized) to set aside any qualms concerning the mechanism underlying the plot.

     Wieland unfolds the atrocious consequences that follow when a deeply religious individual becomes convinced he’s being guided by the voice of God. He isn’t. The relevance of this to the situation in the United States at the present time is entirely obvious, where some supposedly deeply religious conservatives are allowing themselves to be led to a state of moral idiocy because of a misguided allegiance to an amoral and self-interested deceiver.

     In addition to writing melodramatic novels involving odd phenomena and abnormal states of mind, Brown took a pointed interest in democracy and the rights of women—but it’s the abnormal states of mind that serve as my keynote here; and this chapter of The Next Thrilling Chapter is the one that gives fairest play to the weird, nightmarish atmosphere by which a considerable number of people are currently enveloped, as a consequence of mistaking for reality projections of their fear and unease in a changing world. 

     I say this not in easy mockery, for I, too, am uneasy and afraid. But if in the serial I’m quite literally projecting a nightmare, I do it as fiction; its resemblance to reality may be questioned, and tested by reference to fact. And at a time when computer technology is used to produce fakes that confuse, mislead and deceive, I hope it may be seen that using old serial footage, and inviting viewers to employ an interpretive imagination, constitutes a strategy that runs counter to that of propaganda.



Of course, I don’t discount the possibility that my nightmare may be real and that my fears may come true. Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide (to which I referred in relation to Chapter 3) concerns itself with “the weird, nightmarish atmosphere” that animates certain kinds of propaganda, and reminds readers that “infantile ways of thinking and feeling can at times dictate the behaviour not only of individuals but also of social groups.” The recurrence in contemporary fantasy (with a political basis) of the separate elements of children subject to torture and sacrifice, a possibly reflexive and incoherent antisemitism, and apocalyptic hope, is a part of what leads me to be concerned that the stories animating support on the right might overbalance into a very unpleasant situation altogether.



Possibly it makes sense to suppose that what Cohn describes as “a myth... designed to appeal to all the paranoid and destructive potential in human beings” was not, in the early twentieth century, revived and modernized, so much as it was reactivated. Cultures may change, there may be advances in knowledge, but people are people, and respond in the same kinds of way to the same kinds of thing they always have, even if the same kinds of thing take on a new guise. It may make as much, if not more sense to suppose the version of the fantasy reactivated in the early twenty-first century—which is in many respects again desecularized—is essentially the same only in its most fundamental elements, which are preserved, through time, like seeds.

     They sprout anew in the soil of stupidity, which is turned over, periodically, by those too lazy or too greedy to raise an honest crop...