Talking to the Furniture–Or to the People Whom We Imagine to Be Occupying It

About thirty-five years ago, I was burned quite badly in a gas explosion. I had to be flown by helicopter to a burn treatment center more than three hours from my home, and after I returned home about three months later, it took me many months just to re-learn how to walk.

When you go through an experience like that, you become very self-focused, in some ways quite peculiarly so. And when you start to get out and about, the attention that you receive from others simply for having survived both reinforces that self-focus and makes you hyperconscious about revealing any of the eccentricities of perspective that you have acquired as part of the process of surviving. You are desperate to be perceived again as “normal” because, underneath it all, you are fairly certain that you will never be completely “normal” again.

The emotional part of the healing process involves reacquiring a sense of confidence based on the illusion that you can live your daily life on your own terms. At its core, that confidence is grounded in nothing more than the conviction that no matter what peculiarities you may conceal from the world, you are qualified to regard much of what is going on in the world around you as just plain nuts.

A memorable moment in my emotional recovery occurred when a senile and alcoholic old woman in our neighborhood told me that while I had been in the hospital, she had come out onto her porch each night and had prayed to the maple tree in her front yard for my recovery. Several of her neighbors later volunteered that each evening she had indeed come out on the porch and had an animated conversation with the tree. Apparently, these prayer sessions had usually ended up with her berating the tree for not giving her any sign that it had been listening to what she had been saying. She would often conclude the evening’s one-sided conversation by warning the tree that, despite the decades that it had stood in her front yard providing shade, she might have to have it cut down if it turned out to be good for nothing but shade.

The provocation for this personal reminiscence is almost certainly very clear to all of you. “Eastwooding” is the new word for talking to an inanimate object, specifically a piece of furniture, and “talking to the furniture” has long been a symptom of and a metaphor for the deepening loneliness and creeping senility too often associated with old age.

Much of the negative criticism of Clint Eastwood’s speech at the GOP convention has centered on one of three things: (1) because it was delivered just ahead of Romney’s acceptance speech and because it created such a sensation, it overshadowed Romney’s speech instead of more proportionately providing a dramatic lead into it; (2) because it was so seemingly unrehearsed, so extemporaneous, it seemed rambling and even incoherent, diffusing a great deal of the point that it seemed intended to make; and (3) it made a very highly regarded and seemingly ageless director and actor seem suddenly in his “dotage,” reducing him not just to the level of a political hack but to the level of a political caricature–or, if you will, a buffoon.

I think that all of these criticisms are very warranted. But I think that is worthwhile to consider several other elements of this debacle.

First, what would have been the response to the same speech if Eastwood had been twenty or thirty years younger? Although it is possible that his being younger would have eliminated the suggestion of creeping senility, it is also very likely that viewers would have wondered about his sobriety. It would have also made it much more difficult for him to have done the kind of film work that he has done over the last two to three decades. Although Eastwood’s speech was not as damaging as any of Mel Gibson’s recorded rants have been to his career, the current trajectory of that career is instructive. Film-making depends on marketing, and this speech was a marketing disaster, unless one is targeting the audience for Obama: 2016 or Honey Boo Boo. (By the way, I currently live in Lima, Ohio, where the ticket receipts for Obama: 2016 have been higher than in any other metropolitan area in the country. So it is with some reflected personal embarrassment that I would like to point out that the audience that mistakes Obama: 2016 for serious investigative journalism makes the viewership of Honey Boo Boo seem comparatively like a collection of Mensa candidates.)

Second, defenders of Eastwood’s speech have pointed to its spontaneity and originality, as if it were piece of performance art, rather than actually a speech. But such assertions need to be judged against the backdrop of a convention in which new ideas were asserted with much more regularity than they were produced. Moreover, talking to an empty chair is actually a stage device with a long history—usually suggesting madness or senility, unless there is an assumption that communication with ghosts is possible. At best, this stage device suggests foolish whimsy—the preoccupations of a daydreamer whose fantasies far outreach his actual prospects. Although the device is usually employed by politicians more as a threat than as an actual tactic, they have often appropriated it. But, to cite just one memorable instance in which it was used as an actual tactic, in the 1998 New York gubernatorial election, incumbent George Pataki accused his opponent, New York City Council President Peter Vallone, of engaging in an onslaught of unwarranted, very personalized attacks and left him standing alone at the podium for a televised debate. Pataki was campaigning miles away from the studio—and incidentally won the election quite handily. Very recently, political commentators have appropriated the stage device of the empty chair when a controversial figure has failed to appear for a scheduled interview: MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell did so when George Zimmerman’s attorney failed to show for an appearance, and CNN’s Piers Morgan did so when Rep. Todd Akin was a no-show. In both of these instances, the ploy fell very flat—largely, I think, because the commentator’s disdainful monologue couldn’t possibly be anywhere near as interesting as the interview might have been.

Lastly, Eastwood did, of course, do Lawrence O’Donnell and Piers Morgan one better by pretending to engage in a dialogue with Obama. Therapists often encourage their patients to engage in this sort of “dialogue” with an empty chair as a way of addressing chronic or sublimated issues. But there has been nothing sublimated about the Far Right’s antipathy toward Obama, and if Eastwood’s speech was intended to be therapeutic, it pretty clearly failed because it did not serve to make the audience come to terms with that antipathy, never mind put it behind them. Rather, it clearly embraced and even celebrated that antipathy.  Furthermore, although the stage device of the empty chair may have made the speech more viscerally entertaining, especially for the very sympathetic audience in the convention hall, it also reinforced several of the most self-damaging aspects of the current Republican presidential campaign. Democrats have charged that the Romney campaign has been very long on generic and inaccurate criticisms and very short on substantive alternatives. A staged, one-sided conversation that has a sensational effect but addresses nothing substantive certainly reinforces that charge. Likewise, Democrats have suggested that Romney is trying to run against an “invented Obama” rather than Obama’s actual record, because doing so is not only easier but more inflammatory. The fact that Eastwood was literally putting words into Obama’s mouth that no one has ever heard him utter, at least publicly, does little to deflect the charge that when it is expedient to do so, the Romney campaign is all too willing to appeal to the “Birthers” and other extremists in the GOP.

As Kehlog Albran once observed more generically but pithily, “Arguments with the furniture are rarely productive.”

4 thoughts on “Talking to the Furniture–Or to the People Whom We Imagine to Be Occupying It

  1. Personally, I though Eastwood was channeling Jimmy Stewart in “Harvey.” Stewart plays a drunk, though, and Harvey, invisible to most of us, is a pooka. Pookas can be either good or bad… could it be Obama is one, too? I guess it is all in the eye of the beholder.

    Thanks. This is a better take on last Thursday night than any I have seen.

  2. Pingback: » Liberal Academics Miss Point Of National Empty Chair Day - Col·lege In·sur·rec·tion

  3. Your analytical treatise of the Eastwood RNC dialogue is the best illustration of the dichotomy between Academe and reality I’ve run across in the past seven plus decades. At first I was disappointed in the narrow, slanted viewpoint, but after reflecting on definitions of “Academic” at dictionary.com I understood: [emphasis mine]
    ,,3. theoretical or hypothetical; not practical, realistic, or directly useful:
    ,,4. learned or scholarly but lacking in worldliness, common sense, or practicality.

    • As an academic, I ask scholars and students (and everyone else) to back up what they say. To wit, make no assertion unless you also provide proof (that’s part of the definition of “academic” that you elide). You say that this “analytical treatise” (it is not a treatise, but that’s another story, and analytic? how?) illustrates a “dichotomy between Academe and reality” but you don’t explain how. Nor do you tell in what way the post is “narrow, slanted.” We like to encourage discussion, but bald, sweeping statements that present no basis don’t help that. They merely stake a claim–and that is never enough.

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