From Achilles to Obama, men have yearned to achieve immortality through great deeds that would outlive them. The former sought to do deeds on a human level and is remembered thousands of years later. The latter seeks to achieve permanent political and social change, and perhaps posterity will nod to him as well. Yet both men presume an entirely earthly playing field, measuring “immortality” simply by an abnormal length of mortality.
Conservatives have long stressed “the permanent things” precisely because they see a flaw in this argument. Obama’s political playing field is only the macrocosm of Achilles’s human one, and both use the same playbook: one which assigns immortal status to something that was not designed to last. Of course, we operate in an earthly context and perhaps something that lasts a long time is as good as permanent. But immortality—even in that context—must be considered based on its nature, not its duration. And it is for this reason that country songwriter Phil Vassar, and not Homer, has the greater insight into how a man should seek earthly immortality.
Vassar’s new album includes a song entitled “John Wayne,” the second verse of which goes as follows:
After my day is done, I lay down with my only one
Girl, there ain’t no holdin’ back the sun;
And as I watch you sleepin’, love’s a promise that’s worth keepin’—
Holdin’ it together by holdin’ on forever.
Vassar concludes the song, “In a world where love and heroes fade away, I want to be John Wayne.”
(Almost) needless to say, permanence is not a masculine trait. But Vassar, a man, finds a sense of permanence and heroism in (as he says elsewhere in the song) being “faithful to his woman.” This is significant, because of the nature of the deed he admires.
Most men entering marriage today are certain that they can be the first men in history to make the goosebumps last forever, and this misdirected dream of immortality within an institution rather than through an institution leads to many a failed marriage. Psychologists tell us that commitment comes more naturally to women than to men—yet men, who of the two sexes should be giving particular thought to the nature of the permanent institution they enter, are clearly not doing so.
Vassar illustrates this in another song as the singer grapples despairingly with the air, searching for the lost fire:
What’s become of our two hearts, lately we just play the parts
We say the lines but there’s no spark
We never miss a cue, but it’s a passionless walk-through
“I love you” doesn’t mean so much when there’s no fire behind it
It was just here I know it was, it must be hiding.
Likewise, political institutions are designed to be permanent, and the laws within them are not. A constitution or a public space is designed to provide permanent stability for temporary things (see Michael Knox Beran’s recent article in City Journal for more on this). Yet most politicians follow Achilles and Obama, seeking immortality for themselves by passing laws that accomplish something permanent. It is this misdirected dream of immortality that can lead an entire political party to commit political suicide over an admittedly atrocious healthcare bill in the hope of getting the goosebumps back.
In his notes on the “John Wayne” song, Vassar writes:
“As a very small kid my dad loved John Wayne. How different the world is now. Chivalry, how you treat a woman, treat a friend—that’s all gone. The golden rule doesn’t seem to apply anymore. Nothing seems to last. Everybody wants a quick fix now, from disposable razors to disposable relationships. Everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame. People used to really work at sticking together and making things last. That’s what John Wayne represents for me—he was really a man’s man.”
For Vassar, a “man’s man” is one who seeks—and finds—immortality by correctly identifying the permanent things and fighting for them. Permanence implies indifference to circumstances. In politics, laws must adapt to circumstances, while lasting institutions must outlive them. A great constitution is one that survives crises, and a great people is one that is faithful to that national promise (its constitution) even when circumstances beg equivocation. The political genius of America (learned from ancient Rome) was in binding itself back to a beginning, defiantly promising faithfulness to its founding promise despite any future storms. It was against human nature, certainly—but that’s precisely the point.
That is why Vassar is right to locate the primordial source of immortality in the nature of the commitment in marriage, and why he is right to yearn for it. Earthly immortality, something to fill the human desire, is not found in being an especially impressive human—it requires going against human nature itself. A John Wayne is one who binds himself back to a beginning and remains faithful despite the worst of circumstances. In short, permanence—deeds worthy of remembrance whether they are remembered or not—requires a man to transcend his own nature and emulate that which is truly immortal. A gentleman treats a woman with veneration in part because she represents hope for his yearning—his commitment—to be more than he is. Whether he is remembered for it is beside the point.
Vassar ends his initially hopeless-sounding song about seeking lost love on the right note:
Under the sun, behind the moon,
From January until June
A promise made, a promise kept
Baby, let’s retrace our steps
Somewhere between hope and despair
It’s got to be around here somewhere.