Magazine article Insight on the News

A Morality Tale for Our Life and Times

Magazine article Insight on the News

A Morality Tale for Our Life and Times

Article excerpt

Everyone's wondering what kind of narrative language it would take to provide the proper tone for the sex, lies and abuse of power scandal now playing out on the banks of the Potomac. Literature abounds with stories both spiritual and secular, appealing to parody and pornography, ranging from tragedy to theater of the absurd.

Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, among the most erudite men in Congress, quotes Sir Thomas More to his colleagues, reminding members of their oath to God, country and the Constitution: "When you take an oath, you hold your soul in your hands" and if you swear falsely it is like seeing your soul run out through your fingers.

Bill Clinton, suggesting that his own soul already may have slipped through his fingers, invokes a Hebrew prayer spoken on Yom Kippur, when Jews ask to be forgiven for their sins. "It takes an act of will for us to make a turn," he said at the National Prayer Breakfast. "It means breaking old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy ... it means saying `I am sorry.'"

For a long time the president preferred the sentimental -- and absurd -- cliche from Love Story, that "love means never having to say you're sorry." Only when that didn't work did he retreat to a religious appeal -- something even the atheist Josef Stalin did after his partner, Adolf Hitler, invaded Russia.

But this sexy Washington story is less suitable as a sermon than as a salacious novel with lots of graphic detail. Erica Jong comes to mind. She might call it Fear of Flying on Air Force One.

A writer more interested in parody than prurience could update Chaucer by writing a contemporary Canterbury Tales. Instead of the Tabard in Southark, the characters might gather at the White House for a press conference, telling tales in keeping with their characters. Hillary Clinton could set the tone as the "Wife of Wrath" answering the question posed by the Wife of Bath: "What is the thing that women most desire?"

Bill Clinton might tell the tale given by the bookish student from Oxford about "patient Griselda," a wife who stands by her man no matter what. Before Griselda marries, her husband makes her promise:

... to obey

My lightest whim and pleasure; you must show

A willing heart, ungrudging night or day

Whether I please to offer joy or woe,

When I say "Yes" you never shall say "No,"

Either by word or frowning a defiance.

Chaucer is less well-known for his narrative poem "Troilus and Cressida" about two lovers who have a clandestine sexual affair, though it easily could be reworked to fit the contemporary scenario. …

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