Fed up with Biden v Trump II? Some succour from fictional rematches | World News - Hindustan Times
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Fed up with Biden v Trump II? Some succour from fictional rematches

The Economist
May 11, 2024 08:30 AM IST

From “Moby Dick”, “Star Wars” and “Rocky” to the presidential election

Picture a pair of adversaries—let’s call them Joe and Donald. In a story of rivalry, vanquishment and triumph, Joe beats Donald in a race or a fight. Now imagine they face off again. This drama is richer; it has the old ingredients plus stubbornness, grudges and the dream or delusion of a second chance.

 Darth Vader
Darth Vader

It is six months until the titanic rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump on November 5th—the first in a presidential contest since Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson again in 1956. Once more common, electoral rematches have grown rarer as national politics has become an unforgiving, one-strike-and-you’re-out game. (Characteristically, Mr Trump is an exception.) On screen and in literature, however, the rematch is a staple of storytelling. Art can illuminate the stakes and motives when past combatants clash anew.

Rematch narratives broadly divide into two categories. In one, the outcome is unchanged. Whoever was stronger or cleverer in the original skirmish remains so. Take the most ill-advised rematch in literature: between Ahab and Moby Dick, who in their first encounter tore off Ahab’s leg. “Ain’t one limb enough?” asks a seafarer who lost an arm to the white whale. “He’s best let alone; don’t you think so, Captain?” No, Ahab doesn’t think so. All his pain and yearnings are embodied in the whale. Their second meeting costs him his life, his ship and almost its whole crew.

Know when you’re beaten, runs the moral of such tales. Trying to get even can take others down with you. This rematch genre stretches back to the “Iliad”. In Homer’s epic, the god Apollo whisks Hector away from a duel with Achilles in a cloud of mist. Everyone begs the Trojan prince to steer clear of the Greek warrior, but Hector won’t listen. Achilles drives a spear through his neck and drags the corpse behind his chariot.

In the other category of rematches, the losers lick their wounds, learn something important—often about themselves—and get their revenge. In the Bible, Joshua and the Israelites are defeated by a tribe in Canaan. After expunging a sinner from their ranks, they return to rout their foe. When they first cross lightsabers in the “Star Wars” trilogy, Darth Vader cuts off Luke Skywalker’s hand; worse, he raspily reveals he is Luke’s dad. “I will not fight you, father,” Luke says when they meet again. But he does—and wins.

What may be modern cinema’s best-known rematch wasn’t supposed to happen. After Apollo Creed, a boxing champ, scrapes a victory in a slugfest with Rocky Balboa, they agree not to repeat it. Then “Rocky” made a fortune and they reconsidered. In “Rocky II” it is Creed who instigates the do-over. “I won,” he reasons, “but I didn’t beat him.” Pushing his luck, as some incumbents do, he winds up on the canvas as Rocky staggers to glory.

Not all rematches involve violence: some are tussles of love. When Mr Darcy first asks Elizabeth Bennet to marry him in “Pride and Prejudice”, he makes rookie errors, disparaging her family and haughtily saying he loves her against his better judgment. When he proposes again, he has mastered his “abominable pride” (and Elizabeth has had a mind-focusing glimpse of his country pile).

Another way to think about rematches, beyond the win-lose binary, is as yardsticks of change and markers of time. No one, after all, can step into the same boxing ring, whaling boat or voting booth twice. With creakier joints, wrinklier brows and perhaps shrewder minds, will the heroes emulate, outdo or fall short of their past selves? Will they turn back time or be undone by it?

Alas, the parallels between these archetypes and the election are inexact. Biden v Trump II is not quite as eagerly anticipated as Rocky’s second bout with Creed. Mr Biden is no invincible Achilles; Mr Trump seems to have skipped his Darcy-style moral education. Generation-wise, neither is a Skywalker. In any case, an election is less a one-on-one stand-off than an agglomeration of microdramas, in which tens of millions of ordinary Americans will decide whether to stick or twist.

It isn’t just polling day: everyday life is mostly a rematch, a series of run-ins with the same colleagues or relatives and, above all, the same you, with your too-familiar foibles and neuroses. These quotidian repetitions may ultimately be why rematches are an enduring theme of art. In a world of habits and routines, of recurring frustrations and gnawing grievances, they offer a hope that things might turn out differently—or the wisdom to accept that they probably won’t.

Read more from Back Story, our column on culture: Salman Rushdie’s gripping take on being stabbed (April 16th) Kate Winslet explores how to be a good autocrat (March 19th) Infatuation, kids, adultery: marriage is the theme of the Oscars (March 7th)

Also: How the Back Story column got its name.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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