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Dan Sportiello | Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In death — as in life — Nixon finds his way into everything.

When I was a boy, my father showed me Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country — a film in which Kirk and Spock see the Klingon Empire, their historical enemy, collapse under the weight of its economic ineptitude. Fighting hardliners on both sides, our heroes negotiate an end to galactic cold war and bring two very different cultures to understand one another for the first time.

The 1991 release of this film was not an accident: By the end of the year, the Soviet Union would have collapsed under the weight of its economic ineptitude. At the time, of course, I did not know this: I knew only that Kirk, whose son David had been murdered by Klingons, should have been the last person to extend to them the hand of friendship. When Kirk himself noted as much, Spock quipped that “there is an old Vulcan proverb: only Nixon could go to China.”

At the time, of course, I had no idea who Nixon was, much less what it meant for him to go to China. I learned the latter only decades later when, during one of my accidental midnight sojourns into the depths of Wikipedia, I stumbled across Nixon in China, the 1987 opera by John Adams that recounts the 1972 visit by Nixon as though the latter were not a president at diplomacy but rather Oedipus at the crossroads.

One wonders what will be remembered in 1,000 years. Men will doubtless have forgotten who Mao Tse-Tung and Chou En-lai were, who Richard Milhous Nixon was, even what the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America were. But perhaps they will still stage Nixon in China and teach their sons and daughters its long dead language, English, just so they can understand what it tries to convey. We watch Oedipus the King to understand not ancient Greek epidemiology but rather the interplay of freedom and fate — just as we watch Nixon in China to understand not the geopolitics of the Cold War but rather what it means to be a man so deeply flawed that he cannot recognize his own heroism.

In art, as in all things, we seek the universal: We are driven to challenge everything — every impression and proverb, every instinct and custom — in seeking what is true and good not just here and now but everywhere and forever. We are, in this, both blessed and cursed: We can transcend any limitation — only to find that there are always more limitations to transcend. For we can be satisfied with no finite thing.

Oedipus the King and Nixon in China captivate us because they offer knowledge beyond that of Athens in 429 B.C. and America in A.D. 1987: They offer to us knowledge of who we really are — who we have always been and who, despite everything, we will always be. The special brilliance of Oedipus the King and Nixon in China is that each reveals to us the limitations upon such knowledge of ourselves — reveals to us, that is, the tragedy of our condition.

Of course, comparing the two dramas may well be nonsense: Among the limitations against which we will forever struggle is a partiality for the things of our own time and place. It may well be that men will forget Nixon in China within my lifetime — that my affection for it has everything to do with my fascination with the Cold War and minimal music and almost nothing to do with what it can or cannot teach us about the human condition. Perhaps it is rather Kirk and Spock who will become the mythic archetypes of future civilizations.

Or perhaps all that we have done, all that we hold aloft in triumph, will be utterly forgotten. If one is honest with oneself — never an easy task — one finds it difficult to avoid this conclusion: Would Wagner have loved “Stairway to Heaven” as we do? Would Michelangelo have loved Campbell’s Soup Cans? Would Shakespeare have seen in Kirk and Spock an echo of Hamlet and Horatio? Would he at least have understood our need for them?

Nixon in China ends, as I do, in uncertainty. As he stares alone into the night as though into the dark forever of his own death, Chou asks himself just one question: “How much of what we did was good?” Each of us, in the end, should remember to ask himself the same question. Nixon, it seems, could not bring himself to do so until it was too late. If he is to find his way even into our memory, let us at least learn from his failure. Let that be his legacy.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his fourth year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. He can be reached at dsportie@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.