Written by Max Haiven
WITH JOE BIDEN now established in the White House without the feared retaliation of his predecessor’s rabid and well-armed supporters, it is tempting to imagine that the age of revenge politics is at its close. But those politics remain, tethered as they are to a vengeful form of neoliberalism that Biden helped foster throughout his political career. In their now-subtler form, they threaten to germinate in the years of his administration, and bloom again afterward. A closer look at the new president’s mobilization of Seamus Heaney’s famous poem about forgiveness offers clues to the past, present, and future of revenge politics in America.
On October 29, as the drama of the 2020 American election climaxed, Joe Biden’s campaign released a stylized, three-minute montage video accompanied by haunting choral music and a reading by Biden of one of his favorite poems, an astonishing excerpt of late Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s play The Cure at Troy.
The video featured a series of stark, black-and-white images of Biden (by a flag-draped coffin, on the hustings, praying, taking a knee before a Black child), of ambiguous vigils and protests (including one in front of Trump Tower), and of front-line and first responders wearing masks in front of hospitals or wildfires (and one with a sheriff at the front door of a Latinx family).
The poem begins:
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
The poem’s now-iconic, unforgettable hinge:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
As a political maneuver, Biden’s emotive mobilization of Heaney’s poem was probably intended to shore up support among his base and perhaps his legions of fearful volunteers. It’s unlikely that many Trump stalwarts or swing voters could be seduced by contemporary Irish verse, let alone by Sophocles’s original play Philoctetes, which Heaney translated as The Cure at Troy. Rather, this poem was likely intended to announce the spirit of his candidacy.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
The poem’s imperative to hope for “a great sea-change on the far side of revenge” was likely calculated by the Biden campaign to awaken in its preferred audience a strong attachment to a vague sense of a promised land beyond the tempests of then-President Donald J. Trump’s increasingly vicious revanchism. Though the video lacked any discussion of policy or platform, it was (perhaps precisely for this reason) compelling. When his victory in Pennsylvania was announced, the Irish public broadcaster RTÉ played a video of Biden reciting the poem. Days later The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, echoing many of his counterparts in the media, swooned: “This appreciation of one of the wisest and subtlest of poets marks out Biden as a truly rare politician.”
“Rare” is a surprising adjective to describe a man crowned with his party’s nomination because of his ideological banality, his factional neutrality, and his stereotypically generic “presidential” appearance and demeanor. In fact, my argument is that, in Biden’s hands, this beautiful poem is far from innocent: it aimed to seduce those (justifiably) eager to see the end of Trump’s vicious and racist revenge politics. But it served to mask the role both Biden and his party have played in creating the vengeful neoliberal conditions of poverty, alienation, and moral decline that paved the way for Trump’s ascendency. After four years of racist dog whistles, vitriolic megalomania, and the daily terror of a nuclear-armed narcissist at the helm of an empire in decline, we might be forgiven for succumbing to Biden’s liberal sentimentality, but at our peril. The politics of vengefulness that Trump tapped and distilled into such an intoxicating moonshine still flows in the veins of America and its vindictive form of capitalism, and Biden’s political instrumentalization of the poem itself subtly off-gasses the same liquor, although of a more refined variety.
Commentators gushing about Biden’s poetic spirit is somewhat ironic, given that a central theme of Sophocles’s Philoctetes is a mistrustful skepticism of the political suasion of seductive words. Near the beginning of the Heaney’s translation of the play, which takes place during the long stalemate of the Trojan War, the wily Odysseus instructs his subordinate soldier, the earnest Neoptolemus (literally, “new warrior,” the son of the slain Greek hero and paragon of martial virtue Achilles):
… experience has taught me: the very people
That go mad at the slightest show of force
Will be eating from your hand if you take them right
And tell the story so as to just suit them.
The elder Greek commander is instructing his young compatriot in how to beguile the rage-filled Philoctetes (translated literally as “lover of gain” but metaphorically as “friendship through good deeds”), on whose barren prison island they have just arrived, in order to obtain from him the prized bow of Hercules. The soldiers have been ordered to retrieve the bow by their generals, based on a prophecy that the Greeks cannot succeed at Troy unless the sharpshooter Philoctetes, whom Odysseus and his colleagues abandoned on the island years before on their way to besiege Troy, rejoins his erstwhile comrades of his own free will. Philoctetes was betrayed and exiled by his brothers-in-arms (orchestrated by Odysseus) after he was bitten by a snake. The wound putrified, disgusting his compatriots and leading them to fear it would offend the gods if he came close to their altars, though this was likely a shallow excuse to rid themselves of his stench. In the intervening years, the lonely, festering, exiled Philoctetes has nursed his grudge, living for nothing but the dream of revenge against his fellow Greeks.
Impatient, conniving, and driven by military expediency, Odysseus hatches a plan in which he, the object of Philoctetes’ vengeful wrath, will hide, while the fresh-faced Neoptolemus will befriend the wounded castaway by also claiming to hate wily king of Ithaca. In the first half of the play, Neoptolemus does as he is ordered and, in the name of his country, seduces Philoctetes by encouraging the old man’s grievance. By falsely promising to take the wounded soldier back to Greece, Achilles’ son peacefully obtains the unerring bow from a lonely old man desperate for friendship and affirmation. But in the second half, the noble-spirited boy courts treason by rebelling against Odysseus. He returns the magic bow to Philoctetes, swearing to transport the exile to Greece rather than, as planned, abduct him to Troy to fulfill the fated prophecy. When Neoptolemus shows virtue, choosing honor and truth over obedience to nation and chain of command, the spirit of Hercules appears and instructs the recalcitrant Philoctetes to drop his grudge and obey his duty to fate. The play ends as the three heroes prepare to set sail for Troy to return to the battlefield and onward to their famous, bloody victory.
Biden and his many laudators have likely not read the entire play carefully. They are perhaps instead relying on the seemingly unerring emotive accuracy of the oft-cited poetic excerpts, which, like Philoctetes’ bow and arrows, “never miss and always kill” their quarry. They would not be the first to trade a careful meditation of the play’s complexity for the poem’s political expediency.
Heaney wrote the play for the Field Day Theatre Company in 1990 as an explicit commentary on the gruesome hostilities of the Northern Irish conflict and its weaponization of pain, moral courage, and vengeance. It premiered to a riveted audience in war-torn Derry in the same year. In spite of the ongoing and seemingly intractable conflict, Heaney’s play broke in a global moment of rising neoliberal idealism, buoyed by the triumph of the human spirit that had seen uprisings against Soviet rule in Poland and would soon see the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Good Friday Agreement. The poem has become indelibly associated with the righteous optimism of the early 1990s, the so-called End of History when it appeared that not only would capitalism triumph over all ideological adversaries but also over war, poverty, and other human frailties. Biden’s mobilization of the poem recently evokes a nostalgia not for neoliberalism, which after all remains very much with us, but for its lost optimism.
Almost as soon as the play was penned the stirring lines quoted above became canonical. They were first uttered in a political context in the inaugural address of iconic Irish president Mary Robinson, whose election of 1990 certainly felt like a “great sea-change” of modernity, liberalism, and peace in a country hitherto benighted by postcolonial melancholia, conservative and Catholic reaction, and never-ending conflict. With blithe plagiarism and imperial swagger, Biden’s chum Bill Clinton recited these same lines upon visiting Northern Ireland in 1995 to celebrate the cease-fire that would eventually lead, three years later, to the Good Friday Agreement. In Ireland, the poem is in many ways indelibly linked to the peace process. Around the world, Clinton has recited it on several occasions since on his lucrative corporate and philanthropic lecture circuit. Biden himself quoted the poem in his campaign for the 2008 Democratic Primary and was clearly eager to revivify it in 2020, only partly as an homage to his own much-cited Irish heritage.
The poem, in a sense, has been made to represent the battle hymn of a kind of revanchist neoliberalism. In its first, triumphant incarnation in the 1990s, neoliberalism prophesied the arrival of peace, justice, modernity, and global prosperity so long held back by rigid 20th-century ideologies. If first as tragedy, now as farce: the poem’s reappearance today, after 30 years of neoliberal rule, sounds from a tired clarion to awaken an outdated ideological enthusiasm that can only sustain its luster and dignity in the face of the deformed reactionary evils it helped to breed.
It cannot be denied: the passage Biden quotes is a beautiful and captivating poem. In the context of the larger play the lines are recited by the chorus at the very climax, when Neoptolemus’ display of insubordinate virtue causes the spirit of Hercules to appear to Philoctetes and instruct the wounded archer to lay down his rancor, embrace his fate, and return to the Trojan War with his one-time betrayers. The passage reaches its summit with heart-catching gravitas:
Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightening and storm
And god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
What miraculous self-healing these lines today represent, in a moment when we all too often find ourselves quoting Heaney’s predecessor William Butler Yeats’s dark words of 1919 on the unheard or inchoate outcries and birth-cries in an age of disaster:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Written during the last global pandemic, as his pregnant wife struggled for her life, Yeats’s grim poem has lately appeared on the social media accounts of many horrified liberals and progressives who bore witness to Trump’s rise to power in 2016. A perennial favorite of the undergraduate literary canon, it has enjoyed a renewed pedagogical vitality as a prescient if dismal comment on current events. It was even read aloud by Hillary Clinton at a Dublin fundraiser in 2019 in reference to the vengeful, lie-driven political culture instigated by her triumphant opponent.
Biden’s recitation of Heaney in the 2020 election implied that he, like the noble Neoptolemus, rejects the “policy of lies” so characteristic of Trump and that he, like Achilles’ son, would “rather fail and keep my self respect / than win by cheating.” It was performative, though perhaps truly believed for all of that: narcotic self-deception is today’s designer drug of choice. In fact, Biden, the Clintons, and the faction of the Democratic Party machine they represent might be said to both lack all conviction and be filled with little more than passionate intensity.
To say that the Democrats represent a faction of corporate America and its global imperial ambitions should not come as a surprise. In any case, the donations made to their coffers by investment banks, industry groups, and weapons manufacturers tell the story. The way in which the Biden/Harris ticket outmaneuvered Bernie Sanders and his supporters is every bit Odyssean in its conniving political expediency. In the midst of a huge, Black-led uprising against racist policing (the cutting edge of institutionalized white supremacy), the ascendent Biden named a police lawyer as his running mate and never swerved from his paternalistic tough-on-crime rhetoric, playing to the most reactionary (and eldest and whitest) constituents. Though Harris’s ascendency to the vice presidency is indeed historic and meaningful, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor rightly notes that her conservative orientation and track record bode ill for the prospect of true racial justice.
During the last Democratic administration, in which Biden was vice president, the costs of the 2007–’08 financial crisis were displaced onto the poorest Americans while drone strikes did the dirty work of empire with little to no reduction in American imperial presence abroad. Its signature domestic achievement, Obamacare, did little to spare the nation’s poor and working class the predations of corporate health and pharmaceutical corporations. Its figure-head, Obama, rose to power on similar promises of a “tidal wave of justice.” Yet over his presidency, floods, literal and metaphorical, ravaged the nation, from the aqueous vengeance of global climate chaos to the scourge of opioids that preyed upon the abandonment, alienation, and sense of hopelessness. In those years, the hitherto upward trend in average life expectancy flatlined in the United States and declined for the poorest and most marginalized. Net worth of Black people and poor and working people of all backgrounds dropped. Together, these economic terrors of racial capitalism represent a form of systemic or structural revenge that, if unplanned and unintended, is no less deadly and cruel for all of that. Though capitalism’s vengefulness was naked, fanged, and boastful under Trump’s regime, we should not fail to recognize its quieter, more genteel former incarnations in the previous and subsequent administrations.
Yet like the annoyed Odysseus, sent by fate to retrieve the abandoned, rage-filled Philoctetes from his barren island prison, in 2020 the Democrats (and many of their supporters) were somehow oblivious to their own role in fomenting the pain, sense of betrayal, and vengefulness that they found among voters. I am making no excuses for the heinous rise of revanchist white supremacism and neofascism, nor rehearsing the mistaken notion that it is solely held among the poor “left-behind” whites of middle America. The core of Trump’s base (like Hitler’s) are less to be found among the poor and abject but more among the precariously entitled: the willfully ignorant, reactionary, mostly white members of what we used to call the petit bourgeoisie. These subjects imagine that they benefit from and could succeed under neoliberal capitalism (unlike poverty-waged workers, doomed to failure) but also have no control over it (unlike the corporate class, doomed to success) and who constantly fear falling from their perch. Yet Biden and company’s casting of Trump and his ilk as reckless, vengeful, subhuman “deplorables,” like Odysseus’ characterization of the abandoned man-animal Philoctetes, makes at least three crucial but expedient mistakes (and all Odysseus’ mistakes, let’s recall, end up working in his favor).
First, revenge politics which cast Biden (through Heaney) as the “cure” substitute sentiment for politics, as if this were a battle between the forces of light and dark rather than between two visions of the management of a capitalist empire as it declines into chaos. Trump and his core of enablers, devotees, and hangers-on are white supremacists and neofascists, though many of them are too politically illiterate or beguiled by their own weaponized rhetoric of freedom and democracy to know it. Yet the sentiment of vague but white-hot vindictive political rage that Trump tapped into, and that led some 46.8 percent of vote-casting Americans to seek to reelect him in spite of his blathering incompetence, is very real. It has been forged in that war-torn no-man’s-land between experience and ideology that Raymond Williams called the “structures of feeling,” the way a political “common sense” is formed through a sentimental reckoning with a hypercomplex reality.
Second, today’s “mere anarchy” of revenge politics has a material basis to which the Democrats have contributed to profoundly. It was their neoliberal policies as much as the Republicans’ that drove the gap in wealth in America to perilous extremes. The Democratic leadership and their corporate backers superintended and benefited from the putrefaction of capitalism into a form of economic revenge against poor, working, and racialized people, and revenge politics, taking many forms, was the result. Biden’s promise of a politics “on the far side of revenge” is like Neoptolemus’ deceptive promise to Philoctetes (orchestrated by Odysseus): get on the ship and we’ll sail back to your beloved Greece together. In fact, they sail on the “blood-dimmed tide” for Troy and that endless, stupid war of revenge that calls itself justice.
Biden’s turn to poetry is no less a politics of sentiment than Trump’s crass declarations of wounded love and rough care for his followers, though it takes a more refined form. As beautiful and meaningful as the poem itself is, and as ugly as Trump’s politics are, the quoting of emotive poetry (without any substantial link to policy, promise, or platform) panders to a politics of revanchist pleasure. Like the admonishment that “This is not who we are!” that follows every (predictable) appearance of far-right political sadism, Heaney’s poem in Biden’s hands is less a statement of principle than a sentimental placeholder based not on positive affirmation of ideals but on negation. Beyond the virtues of the poem itself, Biden’s use of it aims to evoke in his followers a cheap politics of feeling. The political subtext is that all must love and support Biden as the candidate who quotes poetry and pledges to “return” American politics to a fabled civility. But this is a form of narcissism that can only be sustained so long as those who do not love him (both right and left) are cast as incomprehensible, vengeful savages. It paints the “normal,” to which Biden promises a return as a kingdom of justice and peace; reality is far different for all but the most privileged.
Had Biden or his speechwriters read Heaney’s play carefully, they might have been arrested by these opening lines from the chorus, which caution against just such aggrieved moral superiority:
Heroes. Victims. Gods and human beings.
All throwing shapes, every one of them
Convinced he’s in the right, all of them glad
To repeat themselves and their every last mistake,
No matter what.
People so deep into
Their own self-pity self-pity buoys them up.
People so staunch and true, they’re fixated,
Shining with self-regard like polished stones.
And their whole life spent admiring themselves
For their own long-suffering.
Licking their wounds
And flashing them, around like decorations.
I hate it, I always hated it, and I am
A part of it myself.
Biden’s Odyssean, seductive rhetorical manipulation of Heaney’s poetry is emblematic of the campaign he ran and the necrotic “centrist” politics of which it is a part. Like the tactics of the reactionary charlatans they decry, here cheap political sentiment aimed at pleasuring its quadrant of the voter-base substitutes for meaningful policy or needed change. Like its intimate far-right enemy, this fork-tongued liberalism thrives on projecting its own flaws onto its now-loathsome opponent so it need not face them. The political vengefulness of Trump and his neofascist cult is real enough: like Philoctetes’ foot, the rotting wound weeps for all to see and smell. What this overpowering noxiousness helps hide is the rot in his enemy Odysseus’ own soul, a rot incubated by the latter’s high-minded paternalistic notions of political expediency.
Biden’s campaign might have accurately been summed up in the contradictory slogan “revenge against revenge.” An important part of its strategy was to whip up a self-congratulatory and fear-mongering sentimentality against the hyperbolic revenge politics of Trump. At the same time, it promised the exiled (but no less arrogant) Democrat establishment and their supporters revenge for the “humiliation” and “embarrassment” it suffered when the people, in their loathsome ignorance, elected Trump. Voting for Biden would, we were told, be “The Cure at Troy,” the act of redemption and reconciliation that restored the holy and fated order: “America is back,” he declared in the days after his victory.
And yet, in closing, let’s recall that, at the end of both Sophocles’s play and Heaney’s translation, Philoctetes and Neoptolemus travel back to Troy together with their unerring bow to wage genocidal war. The chorus, moments after uttering Biden’s beloved lines, instructs the now-reconciled young man and revenant exile to be
… twin in arms and archery.
Marauding lions on that shore,
Troy’s nemesis and last nightmare.
Perhaps unsettled by Sophocles’s chauvinistic and bellicose worldview, Heaney exercises his poetic translator’s license to add these instructions to the happily reunited imperialist man-family:
Win by fair combat. But know to shun
Reprisal killing’s when that’s done. […]
When the city’s being sacked
Preserve the shrines. Show gods respect.
Reverence for the gods survives
Out individual mortal lives.
A passing familiarity with the myth of Trojan War reveals that precisely none of this high-minded advice was followed. Neoptolemus and Philoctetes were particularly prolific and gruesome in their destruction of the city and its people. A passing familiarity with American imperialism overseas, or its own domestic wars against workers, enslaved people, Indigenous people, Black people, racialized migrants, and others reveals a saga of bloodcurdling, sadistic, and vindictive violence of which the deadly pathologies of the Trump years are a grim but unmistakable echo.
The rub of Sophocles’s play and Heaney’s translation is that we come to sympathize with the moral drama of characters whose participation in a larger, terrifying war is mystified, a contradiction both inherited and disappeared in Biden’s mobilization of the excerpted poem. In the case of Biden, the hidden conflict is a vengeful class war on two fronts: the domestic, as Dylan Rodríguez notes, in the form of neoliberal capitalism’s deadly austerity politics and unceasing racist policing to protect them; the international, in the form of the long arc of American imperialism, now appearing to many to be in its twilight but no less murderous for all of that. Biden draws on Heaney to, by contrast, spectacularize the explicit political vengefulness of his monstrous opponent while, at the same time, disguising the systemic and structural violence and vengefulness whose perpetuation his own party, policies, and program represent.
The sentimental lure of revenge politics are familiar and repugnant to many when they appear in the reality-TV, hicksploitation variety preferred by Trump, who regularly croons to his followers how much he loves them, how special they are, how unfairly they’ve been treated, how they are owed a debt for a stolen America payable in blood. The liberal drama of revenge politics is harder to recognize when it is produced by HBO-caliber writers, staged by veteran actors, and quotes a Nobel laureate’s translation of an ancient Greek classic. And yet our lives and the fate of the planet may rely on recognizing their dark affinity, as Heaney trusts us to do.