When in Doubt Choose Doubt. The Poetry of Dictator Parodies

“The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass” – this quote has stayed with me since the political upheavals of 2016. I take it from Theodor W. Adorno’s Minima Moralia, a collection of fragments with the foreboding subtitle Reflections on a Damaged Life. The splinter in your eye is a wound inflicted on you. It’s your own misperceptions. In any case it is disruptive to oversight and insight, painfully so. But – and that is the rub – enduring it is empowering, if we are with Adorno on this. It will help you to develop a new, more poignant and more humane kind of thought.

There is strength in vulnerability, and the global marches for women’s rights and against racism have demonstrated precisely how all those splinters hurtling around can energize as well as wound. I have reached a point, though, where I have had enough of thinking as if trying to weep, to echo poet Claudia Rankine. For now I’d much rather focus on the splinters in the eyes of the other side. And with the likes of Donald Trump representing the alt-right, who wears his heart on his tweeting sleeve, this splinter is particularly easy to locate: it is any jab to his vanity, particularly when it comes in the form of laughter, which, by the way, I think is true for any authoritarian mindset.

What I have been watching, though, is not only the usual political comedy and late night shows. I have been following the tried-and tested method of looking in the rearview mirror (driving forward while looking back). And from the past emerged a short man with a mustache and an unrivalled knack for physical comedy. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was first aired in 1940 amid the unfolding horrors of fascism. It satirizes Hitler’s rise, but its dancing, prancing and sausage-fighting dictators tell deeper truths about authoritarian rulers. In many ways Trump embodies not the catastrophic history the film is referencing, but Chaplin’s own parody of it. Chaplin’s Hitler is choleric, vain, has a short attention span, diverts himself by branding others as traitors, and seems strangely language-impaired. Current politics, thus, prove wrong the mantra that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. In our times, it is Chaplin’s farce that repeats itself as history. The element of tragedy, of course, remains, but is currently simmering beneath Trump, Farage, or Putin’s diversionary antics. As in a Trojan horse, the full anti-democratic impact of these developments will sneak rather than crash into our lives.

So what is Chaplin’s The Great Dictator about? It follows the actions of a heroically hapless Jewish soldier in World War One, who escapes ticking and spinning bombs only to crash-land a plane he had accidentally (although with great elegance) flown upside down. He suffers from amnesia and returns to his barber shop years later, only to find himself thrown into an estranged world of ghettoes and Stormtroopers. Meanwhile, the great dictator Hynkel plots world dominance, following his mantra “Democracy: schtonk! Free speech: schtonk! Liberty: schtonk.” In one of the most famous scenes of movie history, his maniacal laugher subsides and makes way for a tenderly sinister dance with the globe. He poses coyly as the globe balloon lifts into the air and lightly bounces off his behind, only to burst in his face moments later. This parable of vanity, hybris and fall has recently gone viral with Donald Trump’s head stuck on Chaplin’s shoulders, although I can’t help wondering whether this slightly clumsy remake actually takes away more from the uncanny truth of the scene than it adds. In any case, Hynkel regains his balance and welcomes fellow dictator Napiloni. Both engage in a battle of applied psychology to gain the upper hand, competing as to who can raise his barber chair the highest and fighting each other with sauerkraut, cream, and, in a thinly veiled phallic pun, oversized roast sausages.

So far, so tragicomical. But Hynkel and the Jewish barber are doppelgangers. And as the barber gets mistaken for Hynkel whilst on the run from Stormtroopers, he halts the advancing armies and delivers one of the most humane, passionate and poetic speeches for a democratic world. It is worth quoting in some length:

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost […] Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! In the name of democracy, let us all unite!”

It is not just that we could transpose this almost word-for-word into the present day. It also stands to question why, with its call for freedom from national barriers, this 1940 movie-theatre speech surpasses most of the progressive politics of today.

Yet what I find most striking about this movie is neither the slapstick nor the ending. It is the dynamic that brings about this turn, a dynamic that is poetic in its most fundamental sense. The movie can only arrive at this speech because its protagonists are two sides of the same coin: the hunted and the persecutor, the hater and the lover. In an open letter, Derek Wong, the only poet on the professor’s watch list compiled by the rightwing organization Turning Point USA, writes: “I love poetry for a hundred reasons, but this one tops the list: poetry brings two bodies together, a reader’s and a poet’s.” This is the original logic of metaphor, a stylistic device in which two irreconcilables encounter each other. It is the experience of reading. And it is no coincidence that this is precisely Charlie Chaplin’s logic, too, who embodies two opposites simultaneously. Any authoritarian politics that I know works on the assumption that there is a clear distinction between us versus them, good versus evil. Poetry, on the other hand, celebrates encounters, whether harmonious or not. It opts for doubt instead of certainty to see what innovations such oscillations can engender. Yet the result, as Chaplin shows, is far from ambivalent: it is a rallying cry for freedom and humanity.