One of my all-time favorite novels is “Being There” (1970), by Jerzy Kosinski. It’s a story about Chance the gardener, who has lived his entire life in a rich old man’s house, tending the rich old man’s garden. In his life he has encountered only three people in face-to-face: the old man, whose castoff tailored clothes fit Chance reasonably well; the old man’s housekeeper, who brings him his meals; and “many years ago” a repairman who showed him “funny pictures of men and women.” Chance knows the world outside his garden almost exclusively from watching TV.
When the old man dies, Chance is thrown out of the house and garden, onto the street. He cannot read or write, he has no money, no proof of identity, no “people skills” (he asks the first Black woman he sees if she will please bring him some supper). He carries a useless TV remote control device and a suitcase packed with antique tailor-made clothes. By this time in the book, the reader knows that Chance is not the brightest bulb on the block, but Kosinski lets his hero make a useful strategic decision: He will behave as he has seen people on TV behave.
And Chance is good at it: he’s watched a lot of TV.
A series of fortuitous events lands him in the public eye, where, while he knows nothing beyond gardening and the world on TV, his innocence shines. He is convincingly humble and endearingly folksy, just as you might see someone on a TV reality show act humble and endearingly folksy.
When questioned, he speaks of his experience tending his garden. Q: “What do you predict for the American economy, Mr. Gardener?” (In the novel, Chance comes to be known, incidentally and accidentally, as “Mr. Gardener.”) A: “In the garden there is a season of growth and a fallow season. If we water the garden, it will prosper.” Members of the television-watching public know clever use of metaphor when they hear it, and they find him charming. A “base” begins to emerge. Chance is taken for a man of great wisdom and leadership, a Messiah of a sort. Q: “What do you like to read, Mr. Gardener?” A: “I can’t read.” Response: “Of course you can’t! Who has the time to read these days?!”
His media popularity brings him to the attention of the politicians and the captains of industry. They’re on him like bottle flies on a gut pile. It turns out that Chance, in addition to his childlike innocence, is preternaturally fluent in their native language, the one they learned from childhood by watching TV. The captains also have legions of advertisement personnel who are keenly aware that consumers of TV can be persuaded to believe whatever they’re told. (Following the idea that if you tell a lie enough times, people will come to believe it’s true. George Orwell said something like that.)
As a result of his unique upbringing, Chance has no personal history (no driver’s license, no medical or dental history, no Green Card), so the captains feel free to make of him what they will. They are fully aware that Chance knows nothing beyond what he has seen on television about philosophy, law, or the workings of a constitutional government. They see immediately that he hasn’t the sense of a goose, but he seems sincere and well-spoken, like important people they’ve seen on TV. They have uses for someone like that.
There is even talk of putting him in the U.S. presidency, where they can keep an eye on him.
In the movie version of the “Being There,” the great Peter Sellers, in maybe his best (and certainly his last) movie, nails the role.
When I read the book many years ago, I was grateful that the Founding Fathers — that bunch of 18th century revolutionaries who were in the process of overthrowing the government — had written a Constitution with checks and balances serving to prevent “a poor thing” (as Mother would say) from pretending to be the president of a country such as ours.
Lynn Basham lives in Fairbanks.