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David Mamet and the Tragic View of Life

I’m reading David Mamet’s new book, The Secret Knowledge, in which in marvelous, mordant prose he explains that he has become a convinced, thorough and indignant conservative.  I’m making notes as I go–Mr. Mamet has agreed to sit down for an Uncommon Knowledge interview in August–but I can’t resist offering you a soupcon or two of Mamet a few weeks early.  Have a taste:

My revelation came upon reading Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.  It was that there is a cost to everything, that nothing is without cost, and that energy spent on A cannot be spent on B, and that this is the meaning of cost–it represents the renunciation of other employments of the money….[M]oney spent on more crossing guards cannot be spent on books.  Both are necessary, a choice must be made, and…this is the Tragic view of life.

And another:

My question, then, was, that as we cannot live without Government, how must we deal with those who will be inclined to abuse it–the politicians and their manipulators?  The answer to that question, I realized, was attempted in the U.S. Constitution–a document based not upon the philosophic assumption that people are basically good, but on the tragic confession of the opposite view.

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And another:

The great wickedness of Liberalism, I saw, was that those who devise the ever new State Utopias, whether crooks or fools, set out to bankrupt and restrict not themselves, but others.

“The great wickedness of Liberalism.”

Something tells me that David Mamet won’t be introducing Barack Obama at the president’s next Hollywood fundraiser.

  1. Stu In Tokyo

    I can’t wait to read this book, so many good books out right now to read! Thanks for the quick glimpse Peter, and I’ll look forward to you interview with Mr. Mamet! Cheers!

  2. Aodhan

    I am finding it strangely compulsive reading. Most pro-conservative advocacies I have come across have been either strident (e.g., Coulter) or analytic (e.g., von Mises). But Mamet is often ironic and elliptical–yet manages to be epigrammatic too. It’s prototypical right-wing content chanellled through a subtle left-wing sensibility–perhaps a literary novelty. For that reason, it’s also quite challenging and deep: I am expecting to read it again.

    Another thing I liked about are his compact and telling parenthetical thought-experiments. For example, he notes that he has never met a professed egalitarian who picked a less fortunate person, pooled their respective wealth, and split it evenly. Just so.

  3. Capt. Aubrey

    It is interesting that Mamet describes this view as tragic. Most of us focus on the fact of our liberty in a positive way but if you once believed in man’s perfectibility and discovered that as a falsehood then it is a tragic view. Perhaps those who were raised with the understanding that it is simply our fate to be fallen recognize that this is where our liberty comes from.  

  4. Derek Simmons

    Mamet discovers in prose that will make the NYT best-seller list, what Thomas Sowell taught us decades ago in “Conflict of Visions.” The googly-eyes behind the rose colored glasses through which liberals see the world have nearly cost us our Republic because too many of us who knew better did nothing when “the 60′s” took over the schools, the courthouse, and the White House.

  5. Robert Dammers

    Peter,

    One of the great joys of listening to you as an interviewer is the way you have obviously done your homework before the interview: the topics are well rooted in the actual words or positions of the interviewee (chapter and verse cited), about which you then ask illuminating questions.  I am very much looking forward to your conversation with Mamet.

    By the way, have you ever considered (or tried) to get an interview with Tom Stoppard?  I would love to hear that!

  6. Robert Dammers
    Capt. Aubrey: . . . Perhaps those who were raised with the understanding that it is simply our fate to be fallen recognize that this is where our liberty comes from.   · Jun 17 at 2:52am

    But to acknowledge The Fall is the very essence of tragedy.  From that follows, as the Player says in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead “The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.”

  7. River

    Excellent. Sober. Wise. Intelligent.

  8. Hang On

    “My question, then, was, that as we cannot live without Government, how must we deal with those who will be inclined to abuse it–the politicians and their manipulators?  The answer to that question, I realized, was attempted in the U.S. Constitution–a document based not upon the philosophic assumption that people are basically good, but on the tragic confession of the opposite view.”

    It’s slightly more complicated than that. The antifederalists made the man-is-wicked argument as a reason to not ratify the Constitution because it gave too much power to a central government. The federalists made the man-is-wicked-but-has-sufficient-virtue argument to ratify the Constitution so that the federal government would have sufficient power to deal with the problems that had become apparent at least to some under the Articles of Confederation.

  9. Crow

    Hang On: quite correct.

    One of the reasons to appreciate Mamet’s book is that this sort of thing is fairly rare in the art and entertainment industries. We should be glad to welcome such a witty and personal testimonial from a justly-renown playwright.

    Nevertheless and even still, it is important that we understand that this is a testimonial. What struck me from reading Mamet’s book is that it is part-memoir, part-confession, and part-apologia. On occasion he brings out an argument from Sowell or Hayek but for the most part it is about how his temperament shifted over time and the personal and professional consequences thereof.

    In our rightful celebration of his work, though, we should not forget the limitations of this format. For example: as a conservative I laughed aloud several times reading the book and enjoyed it. But I wouldn’t hand it to a liberal friend and say “You’ve got to read this. It will convince you to change your mind.”

    Mamet did not write a book that will challenge liberals in the entertainment industry. He did write one that already committed conservatives can celebrate.

  10. ParisParamus

    I bought Mamet’s and Breitbart’s book on Amazon together (Light and Heavy, both for the beach–if I ever get there). 

    These next 18 months are the perfect time for some political conversions to take place; the Dems are never going to look as bad.  I’m hoping Mamet’s book gives me some insights to be a subtle evangelical (small “e”)

  11. David Williamson

    I wasn’t familiar with Mr Mamet until I heard his 2 hour interview with Hugh Hewitt last week, which was outstanding – he speaks in mordant prose, also. I’m definitely gonna buy the book, and look forward to Peter’s interview.

    There’s nothing new in what he says for us Conservatives, but, like David Horowitz, those that convert from the Left seem to be able to express themselves with the enhanced clarity of those who have suddenly seen the light. Or, in his case, he was a long time on the Right, without knowing it – blinded by Hollywood. Kinda like Rob ;-)

  12. Leslie Watkins

    I’m wondering if he’s read Miguel de Unamuno’s book Tragic Sense of Life or Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man.  In the latter, Niebuhr lays out the reasons why, for him, life is comic rather than tragic, because of his faith in Christ. Perhaps another way of getting at it is the message I once tore out of a fortune cookie: life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.

    Capt. Aubrey: It is interesting that Mamet describes this view as tragic. Most of us focus on the fact of our liberty in a positive way but if you once believed in man’s perfectibility and discovered that as a falsehood then it is a tragic view. Perhaps those who were raised with the understanding that it is simply our fate to be fallen recognize that this is where our liberty comes from.   · Jun 17 at 2:52am

  13. Larry Koler

    I’ve heard Mamet interviewed by Rush, Hugh, Prager and Dennis Miller. This guy is very sweet and unassuming. I was so interested to see that he listens to talk radio and really knows these guys well. I could tell there was affection for the interviewers — which was reciprocated.

    This is a major get. This is like removing a major section of the Berlin Wall. 

    I am just starting to read his book. It’s a very strange and disjointed style. Very short chapters, constant breaks along the way. You have to read the whole paragraph to understand what he is saying in the first sentence. It’s a layered type of writing that forces the mind to get a nugget at a time — and then he reviews each tidbit and assembles it into the main theme again later in the chapter. Brilliant but unlike any or other prose style I’ve encountered. I am being cajoled along, dropping into a mature and comfortable mindset that reflects his odd and idiosyncratic way of thinking. 

    Peter, I am looking forward to your interview.

    [Capt. Aubrey: He told Hugh that Patrick O'Brian was his favorite fiction author. I loved that.]

  14. Fredösphere
    Aodhan: For example, he notes that he has never met a professed egalitarian who picked a less fortunate person, pooled their respective wealth, and split it evenly. Just so. · Jun 17 at 1:20am

    Aodhan, I hate to disprove your assertion, since your broader point is spot-on, but: I am that professed egalitarian of which you speak.

    It happened in 5th grade. I cooked up a crazy idea that I should merge my supply of marbles (one of the largest in the class) with that of two other boys who had very few. Somehow, I thought that we would all benefit from some magical synergy (although that word wasn’t in vogue yet); that the power of Big Marble would make us too big to fail. I promised an equal division of the final supply, so of course my two friends joined.

    The problem is that none of the three of us were particularly good at beating others in marbles. (I had acquired my large supply by purchase, not conquest.) In the end, I lost, big. I learned that my “business model” was pure, romantic, left-wing hooey.

  15. Duane Oyen

    We just got Breitbart on UCK, and now Mamet?  Bliss!  I can’t wait.  And I echo the comment of Robert Dammers about the preparation that is visible in every episode.

    Mamet, in his somewhat dark view that nevertheless determines to go on with what may be the losing position in a world of “where’s mine?” democratic politics, reminds me of Whittaker Chambers’ pessimistic perspective of the war against communism.  I hope that Mamet is as wrong as Chambers was.

  16. Fredösphere
    Duane Oyen: Mamet, in his somewhat dark view that nevertheless determines to go on with what may be the losing position in a world of “where’s mine?” democratic politics, reminds me of Whittaker Chambers’ pessimistic perspective of the war against communism.  I hope that Mamet is as wrong as Chambers was. · Jun 17 at 9:57am

    Duane, keep in mind that one of the odd little consolations that comes with the Tragic View is the assurance that even those in our society who are the most selfish and venal will not fail to find ways to screw themselves over on a regular basis. (Think Rep. Weiner.) Cheer up! And enjoy the show.

  17. ParisParamus

    I find it surprising (alrthough it shouldn’t be; it’s just that most of the media, and most politicians are just so…dim) that Mamet (or others) can be interviewed two, three five times by the Salem show guys, and UCK, and the interviews contain a minimum of repetition.

  18. Misthiocracy

    It boggles my mind that Uncommon Knowledge isn’t broadcast nationwide.  Or even delivered on cable.  It’s so friggin’ good.

    It’s on RightNetwork, of course.  But how much reach do they really have?  Really?

  19. Jim Wilkins
    Larry Koler:  It’s a very strange and disjointed style. Very short chapters, constant breaks along the way. You have to read the whole paragraph to understand what he is saying in the first sentence. It’s a layered type of writing that forces the mind to get a nugget at a time — and then he reviews each tidbit and assembles it into the main theme again later in the chapter. Brilliant but unlike any or other prose style I’ve encountered.

    I agree.  Mamet’s style may be a result of his being a screenwriter or, maybe something else.  Regardless, it is not a light read.  I find myself taking it in small bites in order to thoroughly understand each paragraph.  He puts more important, and sometimes intentionally disjointed, ideas in a paragraph than most writers put in a chapter.

  20. Gordon Savage

    Peter,

    Since you’re interviewing Mamet, please consider Chapter 3 of his “On Directing,” titled “Countercultural Architecture and Dramatic Structure.”  It was based on some lectures in 1987 and led me to always assume him a conservative.  In it he compares bad drama to the countercultural architecture he ran into as an undergraduate in New England in the 60’s. These architects, he says, built houses with flat roofs instead of the traditional slanted because of how they “felt,” because “they had something new to say.” But in the end the snow was too heavy and the roofs collapsed. His point was that drama, like architecture, was bound to begin with the recalcitrance of the real, and must therefore take with utmost seriousness everything earlier generations had discovered, including man’s tendency to self-deception.

    Tell me if his words about the film industry don’t parallel his words about Liberalism:“The film business is caught in a spiral of degeneracy because it’s run by people who have no compass. And the only thing you can do in the face of this downward force is tell the truth. Anytime anyone tells the truth, that’s a counterforce” (p.65)