“And Smelt So”: Tropes of Rot and Corruption in Political Life

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Here is my desk, out in the garden, after the first snow, and after the first melt:

Figure 1: My Desk


I left my desk out all last winter, no doubt causing talk in the town, and the cheesy particle board warped and lost its finish and rotted at the edges, and so in the spring the rotten wood attracted wasps seeking cellulose to build their nests; I could hear them chewing away, the faint scraping of chitinous mandibles as I clicked at my keys. So, I discovered a novel strategy to attract pollinators, and I’m anxious to see if it works again the coming year.
The scrap marble stone is a paperweight, or a power cord-weight, although here as thermal mass it’s melted itself through the ice and snow to rest on the desk, brownish-red leaves trapped under the ice to the left, rotting more and more slowly the colder it gets, snow at the right, rotting to coarseness as water vapor sublimates from it.

And I seem — for whatever reason — to have had rot on my mind rather a lot lately. Perhaps it’s the season:

Figure 2: Rotting Plants


Dull, I suppose, if one’s spectrum is over-broad and not subtle enough. Many, many subtle shades of green even now, and brown, as plant matter cycles into the soil; and many lovely shapes as stems and leaves bow to the ground and then collapse flat. (As a very amateur photographer, I keep seeing these images as tapestries, but maybe what I’m seeing really is there, organic: The plants are flattening onto a plane, from three — and four, taking wind and sun into account — dimensions into two; and the colors really are more sober, in the way that color dyed into fabric can never be as vivid as a jewel or a blossom, which reflect light, or allow light to pass through them. )

Anyhow, we might look in horror at the grotesquely blighted brown leaf at the top of the image, near the stump; but then again, it’s “doing its job” by returning itself to the soil, as all the green leaves must at some point do. So where is the horror? (Or is my aesthetic detachment a case of privilege? After all, I’m not a peasant, to whom blight must imply crop failure, and the horror of famine if the blight is general; I can contemplate the palette of rot, like a tenth-rate Monet in a mini-Giverny.)

In Measure for Measure, Claudio, awaiting execution, speaks as plants, we think, do not:

CLAUDIO: Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;

To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;

This sensible warm motion to become

A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside

In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;

A believer, as Hamlet, in the graveyard scene, apparently, is not:

HAMLET How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot?

And after discussion:

HAMLET Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’ the earth?

HORATIO E’en so.

HAMLET And smelt so? pah! [Puts down the skull].

HORATIO E’en so, my lord.

HAMLET To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?

HORATIO ‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.

HAMLET No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away: O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe, Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

To me, of course, as with the plants, the “sensible warm motion” and the “kneaded clod” are all phases of the same cycle (and if Claudio knew of the complex life of the soil, he might not dismiss it in favor of works of fancy). And Hamlet, despite the grim “And smelt so,” seems to take the same cyclical view. And stopping “a hole to keep the wind away” keeps my “warm motion” sensible in the Maine winter, thank you very much!

Contemporary political discourse in English, worldwide, identifies “rot” with “corruption.” A random sampling:

[T]he [Nigerian] Jonathan administration had succeeded in completely eradicating the rot and corruption met in the distribution of fertilisers in the agriculture sector (Sahara Reporter).

With those words from chief commissioner France Charbonneau, Quebec’s momentous 2½-year corruption hearings came to a close. They had exposed a venal rot (CBC).

But the corruption in Nilambur village panchayat has exposed the rot in rural areas also (The Times of India).

Is the situation we face at the national level also true at the state level? Not so much though the rot of constitutional corruption has crept in as well in several places (Green Party).

“Certainly there are issues of more long-term fiscal importance, but [there are] few issues that reveal the rot and corruption of Washington more clearly than this,” DeMint says. (Time)

To win war against corruption, Xi Jinping must tackle the rot within the system (South China Morning Post).

Bribery and corruption – Stopping the rot (The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales)

Rot, corruption at Thai rice warehouses (news.com)[1]

Obama warns of ‘rot of corruption’ in Africa (Sidney Morning Herald)

So let’s think about this trope, this identification of corruption and rot, just a little. From a really splendid, magisterial article by Zephyr Teachout [PDF]:

Corruption derives from the Latin corrumpero: to break up, to spoil. Rumpo means “to break, to shatter, to burst open, destroy, violate,” and co means “with,”-instead of two things breaking apart (dirumpo), or one thing breaking open (derumpo), corruption is when something breaks within itself: the apple rots on the shelf; narcissism corrodes the soul; government internally disintegrates. The integrity of the object of corruption is threatened by internal decay. In this Article, I argue that the same is true of the concept of corruption in our constitutional system, and that this is a bad thing.

I hope Teachout runs again; there are few figures in American public life I would like to see “burst open” more than that modern Alexander, Andrew Cuomo, the epitome of “cold obstruction.” That said, I am not entirely sure an “apple on the shelf” is the best possible trope to use to think about corruption. With Claudio, Teachout conceives of rot in the object of corruption, isolated (literally so). But I am with Hamlet: I think of rot as cyclical and part of a system, and although a freely admit I cannot replace Teachout’s object trope with a systems[2] trope, I think the effort should be made by somebody more insightful than I am.

We have seen two tropes — “Government is like a household,” and “Government should be run like a business” — exert massive destructive power over the discourse of the political class; and never mind that they are antithetical. The classic trope for corruption in this country is “the fish rots from the head.” But I think the government is as much like a fish as it is like an apple, or even like a body in “the body politic.” Perhaps wishfully, I think that useful, functional tropes on corruption might be drawn from horticulture, which deals with complex and resilient systems, and never considers any “object” in isolation.[3]


[1] It’s worth noting that one middle class notion of corruption is politicians making promises to constituents, and then delivering on them; it’s equated with bribery.

[2] See here on “honest graft.”

[3] Did Teachout throw her apple in the compost? Well then!

Appendix I

When I started this post, I thought I was going to write about permaculture, although in a way I suppose I did. Anyhow, here are two useful YouTubes to contemplate during the upward pull to spring:

This one shows how a permaculture “Yooper” sows seeds on top of the snow a couple of weeks before he anticipates it melting; the freeze/thaw cycle cracks them open and they germinate, then hit the soil as the show disappears.

This is the follow-up; the technique worked. That might be a good way for me to get clover going, or wildflowers. My general idea is to get rid of grass where found, and if I gave the clover a head start using this trick, I might work more toward that goal.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Torsten

    Would that the rotting remains of this corpse of a nation could be put to such good use as to stop up a bung hole.

    Thanks for the link to the Teachout article, though it does conveniently overlook the fact that the Framers were themselves venal and corrupt. One need only look to the U.S. Constitution’s indifference to the institution of slavery and its conferral of suffrage only upon propertied males.

    Nevertheless, it is unfortunate the Teachout article did not appear until 2009, apparently *after* the Supreme Court had heard oral arguments in Citizens United. :-(

  2. Terry Mock

    Lambert: “…we might look in horror at the grotesquely blighted brown leaf at the top of the image, near the stump; but then again, it’s “doing its job” by returning itself to the soil, as all the green leaves must at some point do. So where is the horror?”

    Restoring Ecosystems to Reverse Global Warming – Promoting the power of nature to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere where it does untold damage, and restore it to the soils where it supports abundant life and helps reverse global warming… http://bio4climate.org/conference-2014/

  3. John Zelnicker

    A great post, Lambert. Your mental meanderings reflect a perspective on the world that I share.

  4. Banger

    I often think that political corruption (I include major corporations and banks as as deeply political as official government) may be a good thing–or at least I try to see it that way at times. Maybe its too slow motion for us and maybe we need to learn patience and go with the natural speed of things. Eventually the breakdown of law and order we see from the government feeling free to violate treaties, laws and the Constitution as well as major corporations and banks no longer be subject to the rule-of-law but becoming virtual states in themselves will shift to the people as a whole–we will get wise and ignore laws and there will be too many of us for the police to stop.

    This corruption could lead to a new structure that many, like Chris Hedges, believe will be a neo-feudal structure that will emerge out of the rotting carcass of the official State. Or maybe we will live in a rigid totalitarian State (replacing the inverted totalitarian State we have today) where each of us will be controlled by nanotech artificial life forms that swim in our bloodstreams regulating our moods and forcing us to march in place when required. More likely our future may be something completely different or a blend of things–but whatever it will be the rot will not hold up the system much longer.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Teachout’s paper is great. To be clear, I’m raising a point on language, not attacking the paper (let alone trying to create a theory of everything that includes it).

  5. steviefinn

    ” Something is rotten in the state of Denmark “, although from what I know about that country today – it ain’t so bad – I could think of other states which might fit in better.
    In August I explored the partially ruined remains of a mansion which for 250 years was a seat of power for the old landed aristocracy. I discovered plenty of rot, eating away at this once supposedly glorious edifice, but also nature in full abundance – slowly tearing what was left apart. I hope to get back there this winter when the muck from which life is renewed, will be more apparent from underneath the skeletons of summer.
    I suppose contemplation of rot or corruption in nature & men could lead to despair – I love this expression from Withnail to a pack of wolves :


  6. lightningclap

    Yes, I love the plant analogy. I am reminded of a trip to Washington’s Olympic Rain Forest, where the entire ecosystem seemed to be simultaneously growing and deteriorating. “Dead” logs teeming with life, the standing trees soft and spongy. All at once.

    Government as garden?


  7. DJG

    I take your question to be: Can we have a kind of Confucian rectification of names in a time of Obama as “liberal,” freedoms protected by a department of “Homeland Security,” and the passivity of an exhortation like “Just Do It”? At the same time, the question is whether the political system and our society are indeed corrupted and rotting. Or is it something else? I’ve been noticing a phenomenon in Chicago that is better described as debasement. You have city hall looting the city budget through manipulation of the tax system and the budget of the public school system through flagrant mismanagement. Chicagoans have been conditioned (debased?) into taking a kind of self-defeating pride in the City That Works and its flamboyant looting–the dare-to-oppose-me destruction of the school system is one instance. For a long time, the poison of race was poured as a potion into the portals of the ears of the populace, which means that the debasement is all the more voluntary, being tied into the identity of white Chicagoans. So you now have absolutely minimal expectations that the democratic structure of a city government will function well. Is this corruption? As mentioned, bribery is the classic crime. But Lambert is asking if deformation of the laws, capture of institutions by the regulated, and unbearable economic pressures by corporations are “corruption.” In Chicago, the surly / disappointed citizenry, the mangled political debate, the grasping economic calculations, and the collapse or public institutions point more toward psychological problems (people with depression) and toward a Buddhistic idea that all things composite are prone to decay.

  8. DJG

    But the question is what metaphors work: Lately, I have been working more with ideas that this is the new baroque (a sour, over-adorned time of manufactured crisis) and a time of too much analysis and not enough synthesis. The idea of rotting and corruption among people who have few ties to agriculture may be a kind of over-analysis (or it may be a feeble metaphor, like “kabuki”). Assumptions in the use of the word are: Things are falling apart. Rotting is causing parts to fall off. Corruption means that structures have been weakened. The end result must be rubble and chaos. But it is true that in systems of thought that are / were more cyclical, rot leads to rebirth. You see it in Jane Ellen Harrison’s discussion in the Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion of the sacrifices of pigs that preceded initiations of the Mysteries at Eleusis. Any study of chthonic deities links rot and rebirth: Proserpina and Hades (Pluto) being one of the central legends. I’m not sure if the metaphor here is Persephone, torn between Demeter (agriculture, rebirth, mildness) and Hades, the Rich One, possessor and dark force. But your metaphor likely will have to go back to the “pagan” sources: Lucretius, Herakleitos, Empedokles, Virgil’s Georgics and that remarkable description of how to make bees by killing a heifer and allowing the body to rot into an eruption of honeybees.

  9. Chauncey Gardiner

    Beautiful, thought-provoking and seasonally timely piece, Lambert. Thank you. I look forward to the photos of your first crocus of spring, their bulbs invisible beneath the snow, and of the coming profusion of buds and blossoms on the branches of your now dormant trees that have been stripped of their autumn foliage, but with their roots buried deeply in the soil of our country, silently awaiting Kondratiev spring.

  10. juliania

    Old ones like me, who have seen so much rot accumulating, have gardens on our mind. Pasture us out where the land needs regeneration and we’ll set to with a will. This summer I got most joy simply making soil, or rather, my earthworm buddies did it for me. Such good earth will I make when into the soil I go! (Perhaps by then there’ll be a plot available that needs my blood and bone, and no strict regulations against the simple process of internment!)

    Down shall we go, and let the good earth enclose us when it’s time. After we have tended it with love. That is the right way of it.

  11. Eclair

    I think of MacLeish’s , “A world ends when its metaphor has died.” Then he calls out to us to, “Invent the age! Invent the metaphor!” A worthy task, for sure.

  12. Paul Niemi

    Lambert, if you want to attract honey bees as pollinators, dump your coffee grounds in a pile on the ground in your back yard. You will see bees digging happily in the old coffee grounds as soon as the earliest warm day of Spring. Also try to keep a mud puddle nearby. They need a source of water in the garden.

  13. Jim

    “…functional tropes on corruption might be drawn from horticulture…”

    An alternative trope on corruption might be drawn from human nature.

    If “corruption is when something breaks within itself than a prime human causal suspect might be human pretension and hubris.

    When virtue becomes vice, strength becomes weakness or wisdom becomes folly than perhaps irony becomes a concept capable of provoking a knowing smile as well as capturing the inconsistency between human aims and consequences (think especially foreign policy and the modern bureaucratic surveillance State.)

    But it may be that irony is also not a permanent condition–as when we become aware of our own responsibilities in creating these inconsistencies or corruptions.

    Is the decline of our country partially tied up with vainglory?

    1. JTFaraday

      Which is not to say we are not also saddled with a whole pack of pathological narcissists and other assorted sociopaths.

  14. CraaazyChris

    This is a segue from ‘corruption’ to ‘conspiracy’, but it may be useful here. Important: before reading any farther, find and don your tinfoil hat. The rest of this won’t make any sense without it.

    Now, find pencil and paper and draw a large equilateral triangle (looks like a pyramid, or like your tinfoil hat). In the center of the triangle, write ‘conspiracy’. Near the lower left corner, write ‘theory. You may scribble in examples here like 911, JFK, etc, but otherwise we’ll leave them alone for now….

    Near the lower right corner, write ‘fact’. Write down some examples you know. There are old classics like COINTELPRO and MKULTRA. There is lots of new material as well, in the Snowden and Manning corpora, and all over the interwebs (including here).

    Near the top, write ‘pattern’, and write down any conspiracy patterns you can think of. Here are some examples to get you started: revolving door, interlocking directorates, false flag, agent provocateur, regulatory capture, etc…

    Now Very Important, crumple the paper and burn immediately. If you are incensed, you may burn incense as well…

    (As a software engineer with a copy of ‘Design Patterns’, on my shelf, I sometimes think of ‘conspiracy patterns’ in similar terms. I’ll buy that book if/when somebody writes it. :-)

  15. smelt

    the very first thing that came to my clearly ‘in$ignificant’ mind, was a bait fish and poor person’s sardine when I saw the word smelt.

    speaking of bait fish, on the subject of Health Care and California (re the two ACA McClatchy links on the links page):

    11/21/14 NBC Bay Area Investigation Prompts Call for Hospital Reform

    11/20/14 California Hospitals Make Hundreds of Errors Every Year, Public is Unaware NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit digs up state records on medical mistakes or “adverse events” in California hospitals.

    11/21/14 USPS Policy … Caused Critical Delays [As in the man is dead as a consequence] in Life and Death Situation Postal service rules prevent most employees from dialing 911 when they witness medical emergencies and it may have caused critical delays in a life and death situation at an Oakland postal facility [How Many thousands of postal workers have known for decades, yet couldn’t find a Major Media outlet/North Bay California DemoRat presumed to actually care U$ congressional representative who was interested before that horrid consequence?]

    If Hawk NBC Bay Area is reporting on this, one should expect it is far, far worse than they are allowed (if Comcast owned NBC wanted) to report.

    Living in the valley myself, I have first hand experience that it is. (Also a note, Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (SCVMC) is a County “Teaching” Hospital/Government entity, with attached, near century old, if not older, remnants (the rest has been discarded and built upon, like quicksand) prior Potter’s Field for those voiceless the Vicious Cali capitalism crushed in its rise to a major World Economy

    And, for all those out of staters (particularly those at least 3,000 miles away), still slobbering over Jerry Brown, without at least asking those millions of poverty ridden who are being abused even further by his technocratic transhuman governance, stick to your “own neck of the woods” when promoting those you’ve never lived under, ya’ll make my stomach turn.

  16. Oregoncharles

    Why do you want to get rid of grass? It’s a useful groundcover, albeit very competitive in the wrong place.

    Around here (Willamette Valley), I find that planting clover is an excellent way to grow grass.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Well, that’s not quite it. I want to get rid of my lawn, what remains of it, and quack grass, which I hate. I like some ornamental grasses just fine. For groundcover, I use clover — like you (but that’s not grass).

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