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Sunday Pages: "Richard Cory"
A poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson
This has been a week of profound unease. The attack on Paul Pelosi—really, an attempt to kidnap and kneecap the Speaker of the House—was deeply disturbing, its horror only magnified by MAGA’s callous and ugly response to an act of political violence by one of their own. In Israel, ostensibly our ally, a full-on criminal is poised to reclaim power—which is impossible not to read as a foreshadowing of Trump’s return to the White House in two years. Putin remains at large, committing atrocity after atrocity in Ukraine. The pandemic proper might be over, but the coronavirus itself has not gotten the message. One of the worst humans on earth, a grotesquely wealthy manchild with zero ability to either feel empathy or grasp the concept of free speech, is dismantling our most important social media platform, just days before the primary source of all our anxiety: Tuesday’s election.
Small wonder we’re all nervous wrecks.
With Twitter, Elon Musk has basically commandeered the Titanic, ordered the pilot to careen into the iceberg, posted Wojak memes while passengers abandoned ship, and arrogantly insisted that the folks in steerage would happily pay eight bucks a month for ice. Bird-app users swam through the cold North Atlantic toward Mastodon’s federation of decentralized lifeboats or the Carpathia that is Substack (an awesome vessel, but not designed with the same purpose as Twitter). Musk is either 1) so high on his own supply that he thinks all his ideas are amazing despite ample evidence to the contrary, 2) a useful idiot tasked by the hostile foreign powers who ponied up for the investment to blow Twitter to smithereens, or 3) engaged in a secret, real-life Brewster’s Millions mission to lose as much dough as possible in the shortest amount of time. It would be wryly amusing to behold this asshole squander all his money, if the fate of global democracy weren’t at take.
Watching a loathsome man wealthier than a king fuck up like this, and knowing that beneath the pudgy, smug exterior he is terrified of being alone, I thought of a poem written in 1897 by Edwin Arlington Robinson, a poet now remembered for using proper names in his work: “Richard Cory,” “Miniver Cheevy,” “Reuben Bright,” and so on. “Elon Musk” belongs among those characters, surely! Paul Simon tinkers with this one a bit in an early Simon & Garfunkel track, but the original maintains perfect scansion, which makes pop its twist ending:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Other than being “richer than a king,” Elon Musk has little in common with Richard Cory. He’s neither clean-favored nor slim nor quiet nor human when he talks. His gait lacks glitter and grace. What would Robinson have made of this South African son of an emerald mine overseer? Would he have been puzzled that such a lout could have accumulated so much wealth while spending so much time trolling HRC and AOC? Would he marvel at the artlessness, the lack of poetry oozing through Elon’s musky pores? Or would he reject the subject outright, as utterly lacking in literary value?
When the valorous Richard Cory ends his life, we are shocked; therein lies the power of the poem. But Elon Musk is already the poster boy for how money can’t buy creativity, taste, artfulness, depth of feeling, looks, business acumen, a sense of humor, friendship, respect, happiness, or love. Do we really need a poem to help us understand that the things money can buy—hair plugs, Twitter, exploding cars—are insufficient? Six syllables would do it:
Yesterday was, somehow, the three-year anniversary of my PREVAIL column. These days, I don’t trust my brain to do things like simple math, so I counted it on my fingers: 2019 to 2020, 2020 to 2021, 2021 to now. Yep, three years. Where has the time gone? I am grateful to you, Dear Reader, for making this endeavor worthwhile. Thanks for reading, thanks for subscribing, thanks for giving life, humor, and wisdom to the comment board. I very much appreciate the generous support.
Thanks for THREE YEARS of PREVAIL!
ICYMI: The Five 8
For our pre-election special, we had as our guest the screenwriter and filmmaker Billy Ray, who moonlights as a pro bono messaging consultant for dozens of Democratic campaigns. He brought the fire:
You can watch the whole episode here:
We’re off this coming Friday, back on the 18th.
Meanwhile: keep sane, Dear Reader. The polls are bullshit.
We shall prevail!