One of the great techniques of art in almost every genre — from music to movies to literature — is tension and release. It’s the stock-in-trade of scary movies; the young woman going down into the basement step by step while the music draws out the moment, when suddenly a figure leaps from the shadows! Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” is a master class in tension-and-release, as is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Moonlight Sonata. Don’t even get me started on the tension-and-release of Phish — we’ll never get out of here.
Tension-and-release is a pact between the artist and the audience — if you let me put you through this excruciating drama for a period of time, I’ll reward you with a sudden release that will allow you to breathe again and may even lead to a moment of resolution and beauty. It’s the very thing that draws us to art. A classic set-up of tension-and-release was Bette Davis in “All About Eve.” She did it with a wink because we knew that at some point all would be resolved.
Sometimes life imitates art, but not so much these days. On a historical scale, it’s easy to identify epochal moments of tension-and-release. WWII would be a good example. After years of sacrifice and loss, peace erupted and people kissed in the streets. Or the first moon landing, when the lunar touchdown let us all breathe out again. Today, we have no release. Covid and polarization have led to a permanent state of tension, with no release in sight. It’s all drama, with no resolution.
There’s covid, of course. Just when we thought we had the beast beat, along comes the Delta variant. Adding to the tension of a prolonged pandemic we have the irrational politicization of vaccines and masks, which leads to all sorts of erratic, violent behavior, like restaurant patrons beating up hostesses who inquire about vaccines, or fights breaking out when someone is challenged about not wearing a mask in public.
There’s the drama at the southern border, where the tension grows by the day. There is no release in sight. Where’s Kamala? Where’s any adult in charge with a plan? Once again, all this unalleviated tension leads to supremely irrational behavior. The U.S. envoy to Haiti, Daniel Foote, resigns his post in a moment of supreme drama rather than remaining in place and trying to resolve the situation. Rep. Maxine Waters, the queen of drama, reacts to pictures of a border patrol agent doing his job — preventing people from illegally entering the U.S. — by declaring his actions “worse than slavery.” Even a B-movie script writer would consider that jumping the shark.
Then, of course, there is Washington, where the D.C. now stands for “drama, continuously.” My apprehensions about the state of politics are not so much about far-left or radical-right agendas, but more about the pure lack of leadership and competency. Washington now exists in its own world, one that is completely opaque to most Americans. It’s a looking-glass world where nothing makes sense. Standard English, for instance, defines reconciliation as “the action of making one view or belief compatible with another.” But in Washington, reconciliation is a process best illustrated by M.C. Escher, where up is down, stairways lead not to heaven but to nowhere, and all sense of direction is lost.
For the most part, we do have relatively intelligent and well-meaning representatives in Washington. But these virtues have been corrupted by polarization and the imbalance of tension-and-release. For instance, we seemed to have had a brief glimpse of release when, back in July, a bipartisan deal was struck on infrastructure. But it was what we call in literature a “red herring.” After that brief glimpse of blue sky, Washington plunged back into Escher world.
What does all this mean for us? Exhaustion, for sure. All tension and no release, as they say, makes Jack a dull — and very tired — boy. Resolution is rejuvenating. Without it we tend to live day-to-day instead of sensing a longer, positive arc to our lives. So we adapt. I have a friend who spent six weeks in Montana this summer and for the most part unplugged from the media stream; he exulted in how refreshing it was. I had a similar experience this summer on a road trip along the California coast where nary a cable talk show host was heard. But at the end of the day, this isn’t a realistic course. We have an obligation and a desire to be informed, to understand the direction of our collective life.
So we’re left to find our own release in this state of perpetual tension. Love and friendship. Art, where tension-and-relief still thrive in beauty and abundance. Good food and wine, taken among enjoyable company. Doing something to make the community where we live a better place. And, finally, demanding more of our leaders. We follow leaders with the expectation that they will find a way to the center, that place of resolution and reconciliation where we can all breathe out. This is the thing we must demand, more than an “agenda” or a “blueprint.” Drama is OK for a while, but if you don’t resolve it, we’re going to turn that movie off, hire a new script writer and make a new one.