Hystericizing Huey: Emotional Appeals, Desire, and the Psychodynamics of Demagoguery

Article excerpt

The time has come for all good men to rise above principle.

--Huey Pierce Long, attributed

Across the street from my former home in the historic downtown Baton Rouge neighborhood known as Spanish Town, Louisiana's so-called New State Capitol building towers thirty-four stories above the Mississippi, seated in an impressive series of gardens and carefully groomed shrubbery. I had never heard of the building before moving to Baton Rouge, and shortly after my arrival in July of 2002, I walked across the street to experience the much talked about monument for myself. When I saw it, I was overcome with the kind of adolescent bemusement immortalized in the Washington Monument scene from the 1996 theatrical hit, Beavis and Butthead Do America (Figure 1). [1] Aside from providing Louisianans an endless reference for jokes about the state's colorful political history, something deathly serious remains after the laughter abates. [2] A clue to the gravity of this unusual (or, rather, all too common) monument is that it is "commented" upon by another: in front of the capitol and erected upon the grave of a popular former governor and US state senator, a statue of Huey Pierce Long beholds the New State Capitol in awe (Figure 2), its right hand thrown back in both bravado and astonishment (Figure 3), its left resting atop a scale model of the building (Figure 4). As the following excerpt from a field guide to the state capitol demonstrates, Long is inextricably wedded to the building, sometimes referred to as "Huey's monument" or "achievement":

   Huey P. Long, one of the most dynamic personalities ever to flash
   across the American political scene, dominated Louisiana politics
   for seven years, serving as [the] Governor from 1928 to 1932 and as
   a U.S. Senator from 1932 until he was shot to death in 1935.
   Ironically, he was mortally wounded in a still-unexplained
   melee inside the capitol, the magnificent structure he conceived,
   rallied public support for, and pushed to completion in only two
   years. Even today, more than four decades after his untimely death,
   his presence still looms large over the entire edifice. (Jolly and
   Calhoun 2)

[FIGURES 1-4 OMITTED]

The rhetorical figure of Huey haunts the capitol and discourse about it, which is literally guaranteed by the proximity of his interred corpse. The dialogue between these two monuments is about gifts and gifting and consequently engages the rhetoric of responsibility: the statue of Huey is admiring the New State Capitol but also stands in awe of the building that the historical Long helped to erect; his phallus towers over him, symbolically oblivious to Long's likeness, as if to remind the petrified subject of his duty to "the people." In this sense, these monuments illustrate the way in which human symbolicity is more in control of us than we are of it: from a distance, the large statue of Long is dwarfed by the memorial to his political prowess (Figure 1). After the laughter passes, standing at the site of these monuments one can succumb to an uncanny feeling, a ghostly sensation and intellectual uncertainty about whether the monuments jubilantly celebrate or mournfully regret the death of this important historical figure (of course, it is both). The feeling is uncanny not only because reactions to the historical Long are ambivalent but also because the massive size of these monuments asks the spectator to reckon with his or her own sense of autonomy and significance, to measure up to the power of the symbolic at the same time one measures up to the legacy of a powerful dead man (see Freud, Uncanny 120-153; Royle 1-38). Prima facie, words fail to describe this feeling.

Such ambivalence about the figure of Long is homologous to the way scholars have approached and reacted to the elusive rhetorical mode he exemplifies: demagogic rhetoric. Patricia Roberts-Miller has recently argued that although an increased interest in demagoguery has arisen among political theorists, "demagoguery has more or less disappeared from [rhetorical] journals and books" because we simply cannot agree about how to define it (460). …