I have not read, listened to, or watched one single news story since election day. Seriously, I don’t even watch the comedy shows, for fear that the topical humor will keep me as well informed as the actual news. To say that I am disappointed in the outcome of our elections is a great understatement. I am trying not to be too cynical, but I feel in my deepest core that for most of my life I have been wrong about my fellow Americans. I have always felt that despite political differences, Americans are at heart decent, kind people. I no longer feel that way; at least not presently. I think Americans are selfish, spoiled, and self-entitled; and I suspect that they are more deeply racist, misogynist, and xenophobic than I ever knew.
So I am divorcing myself from caring about this nation. Even if the current administration were to accomplish everything it claims it is going to do (an absurd proposition from the start), there is absolutely nothing there for me, or for most people like me.
There is something liberating in not caring. I do not spend time online reading repetitive news stories, or checking the ridiculous comments. Instead of Meet the Press or Fox News Sunday I spend the day with the radio tuned to classical music. This has been a morning of Mozart, Schubert, and Haydn. Splendid. I am writing a chapter in my book on the history of the New Year, the chapter wherein Julius Caesar reforms the calendar and makes January 1 the beginning of the year.
This research involves reading a lot of Ovid, my favorite poet. He lived during the reign of Augustus Caesar, and much of his verse extols the wonders of his beloved Caesars. In his long poem called Fasti he explains the origins and significance of all the Roman festivals and holidays; so the poem’s first section is a conversation between the narrator and Janus, the god of beginnings, whose name is echoed in the month January.
There is a great literary mystery surrounding Ovid. Although he was so devoted to the Caesars, and wrote so much verse praising their accomplishments, he was at a certain point in his life sent into exile. Nobody knows why. He ascribed it to ‘carmen et error’—a poem and a mistake. But which poem, which mistake, nobody knows, and Ovid would say no more.
His exile was served on the shores of the Black Sea, in a barbarian community called Tomis. The great Australian novelist David Malouf wrote a novella about Ovid’s time there, called An Imaginary Life. I once interviewed Malouf, and he told me this was his favorite among all his works. As a preface to my edition of Fasti, there is a translation of ‘A Letter from Pontus,’ a Roman who visited Ovid during his exile. He writes that Ovid lived in a mud-floored hut, in ragged clothes, living on salt fish and dry biscuit, with sparse furnishings—’And implements for writing, nothing else.’
It was here that Ovid produced his Fasti. To sit in that rough hut and imagine all the splendors of the world’s greatest city, where once he was a noted and celebrated person, must have been a combination of grief and splendor. And in the end he wrote there one of the greatest works in all of literature.
I don’t compare myself to Ovid, but the experience is instructive. I am living a kind of self-imposed exile, distancing myself from any concern for the country where I have always lived. If they think they can run it so well, go ahead. You know, enough rope . . . I spend all of that spare time reading and writing more than ever; and remembering the America that used to be.