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Gate crashing

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Lorrie_Moore_1999.jpgIn his New York Times book review of Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, Jonathan Lethem begins

I'm aware of one - one - reader who doesn't care for Lorrie Moore, and even that one seems a little apologetic about it. "Too . . . punny," my friend explains, resorting to a pun as though hypnotized by the very tendency that sets off his resistance.
Although I am plainly beyond the scope of Jonathan Lethem's awareness and likely to stay that way, I don't care for Lorrie Moore, and I'm not apologetic about it.  On the contrary, I'm mystified by Moore's success.  Rather than finding her, as Lethem writes, "the most irresistible contemporary Ameri­can writer," I find her among the most over-rated.  Maybe it's me.

Biases disclosed, allow me to move on to the opening of A Gate at the Stairs.  As anyone who has ever tried to write one knows, openings of novels are hard.  (P.G. Wodehouse - by any measure a master of the machinery of plot - begins many of the Wooster-Jeeves novels by overtly complaining about the difficulty of starting.)  

That said, the worst that most bad openings do is fail to draw me in.  I can't think of another novel that offended me so deeply within the first 60 pages.  And this from a novelist feted by Jonathan Lethem as "brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm; seemingly effortlessly lyrical; Lily-Tomlin-funny."  I don't see it.  Maybe it's me.

The assault begins on page 5, on the morning of 9/11.  The protagonist, a 20-year old college student, Tassie, receives a phone call:

My roommate, Murph . . . had met her boyfriend on September tenth, and when she woke up at his place, she'd phone me, in horror and happiness, the television blaring.  "I know, I know," she said, her voice shrugging into the phone.  "It was a terrible price to pay for love, but it had to be done."
I raised my voice to a mock shout.  "You sick slut!  People were killed.  All you think about is your own pleasure."  Then we fell into a kind of hysteria - frightened, guilty, hopeless laughter I have never actually witnessed in women over thirty.
Eight million people live in New York City.  Two-hundred and fifty thousand live in Washington, D.C. (on 9/11, myself included) and millions more live in the surrounding states of Maryland and Virginia.  These millions of people endured the closest experience Americans have had to being bombed by foreign attack on their mainland.  As members of the so-called East Coast literati, some not insignificant group of these people might be expected to be counted among Lorrie Moore's readers.  And they might feel queasy, repulsed, disgusted or otherwise off-put by this callous, unsympathetic, cosseted and immature depiction of a college-aged provincial response to 9/11.  Irresistible you say?

Two pages later, Moore is joking about the owners of a Chinese restaurant who assure Tassie, "'Take your tie!  No lush!'"  For real?  In this day and age, Lorrie Moore thinks this mushy racism make for a good laugh?  In a book that is at least partially about racism (the plot, such as it is, involves adoption by a white couple of a part-black baby girl) - a book, I might add, that contains pages of redundant, tiresome, supposedly-intelligent analysis about black-white race relations - Moore manages to forget that Asians are also "people of color" subject to racism (as in, her own)?  

In fairness to Moore, I'm sympathetic to the problems of rendering the dialogue of people who don't speak English perfectly.  In my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband, I have a handful of characters with imperfect English to juggle.  The answer that I've struck upon is not to "clean up" the dialogue, but to ensure adequate characterization of the characters, so that they have dignity and humanity notwithstanding their clunky speech.  If I don't have an opportunity for such characterization, I won't subject the character to ridicule based on a toss-off line of dialogue.  Moore doesn't make a similar choice.  Maybe it's me.

After demonstrating her skills in conjuring shockingly cavalier 9/11 reactions and racism-lite, Moore moves on to grossing-out the reader.  At evoking this response, Moore excels, and the examples abound (see page 48 for Tassie's gift to her brother of dog poop in a candy box).  Here's Moore describing Tassie's use of a sex toy:

[Murph] had bequeathed me her vibrator, a strange swirling, buzzing thing that when switched to high gyrated in the air like someone's bored thick finger going whoop-dee-doo. . . . I kept the thing on the kitchen counter where Murph had left it for me and occasionally I used it to stir my chocolate milk.
(p. 12-13.)  If this passage is meant as an example of Moore's allegedly "Lily-Tomlin-funny" humor, I have to protest on Lily Tomlin's behalf.  Lily Tomlin is funny.  This "joke" is merely unhygenic.  (And I say this as a novelist who, in Portnoy's Daughter, wrote a scene in which a couple has anal sex with highlighters.)  In the first place, using someone else's vibrator - however washed it is - is the kind of idea that could only occur to an individual without even the most rudimentary exposure to germ theory.  Second, using someone else's vibrator in your food is right up there with using menstrual blood as a condiment in terms of its laugh value.  Even in American Pie, no one ate the pie after Jim Levenstein fucked it.  

And then there's Tassie's casual cruelty towards her mother, a sad woman whose inept parenting seems - in Tassie's description - to be no more noteworthy than average, and a good deal better than the mothering many receive.  Yet Tassie seems to hate her:

"Oh, well, someday maybe I'll open a restaurant," [Mom] said now, sighing brightly, which seemed about as happy as she got - a sigh with some light in it.  She then added a remark that typified the sort that filled me with loathing for her.  "You know, with the new year approaching, I've come to realize I've done nothing these past decades but devote my energies to the interests of others.  So, soon?  I'm going to start focusing on myself."
(p. 53.)  Loathing?  Tassie loathes her mother because she expresses a desire to live for herself now that her daughter's in college and her son's about to graduate from high school?  In case that reaction seems extreme, here's Tassie on her mother's favoritism for the son in the family, Robert:

He had, however, the same loneliness in him that I did, though he had always been my mother's favorite.  Where had that gotten him?  My mother's love was useless.
(p. 60.)  Loneliness, of course, is an attribute notoriously unresponsive to the ministrations of loved ones, especially mothers.  Nonetheless, rather than seeing loneliness as an existential condition, Tassie blames her mother for it.  Tassie's rage at her mother suggests some profound issue, but A Gate at the Stairs never explicates it.  As a result, Tassie's baffling hostility makes her merely a brat with whom it's difficult to identify.

Or maybe it's me.  Lorrie Moore is nothing if not a darling of the critics, and even Michiko Kakutani, who observes in her New York Times review some of the serious structural problems with A Gate at the Stairs, smooths over her criticism as follows:

If Ms. Moore, who started out as a short-story writer, demonstrates some difficulty here in steering the big plot machinery of a novel, she is able to compensate for this by thoroughly immersing the reader in her characters' daily existences.
Such immersion is exactly what the offense of the first 60 pages prevented me from achieving.  So - with all this praise swirling around a book that struck me as wholly unappealing at the outset and, as I intrepidly continued reading, a complete mess by its end - I have to wonder about the source of this disconnect.  Possibly Moore's person - she comes across as a sweet and likable individual - has managed to sway America's book critic clique.  Or potentially Moore's writing irks me unreasonably for irrational reasons - there's no accounting for taste, after all.  Or perhaps Moore, ensconced in the Mid-West, taps into some emotional current that Americans in the States share to the exclusion of expats like myself.  Maybe, to phrase the matter in Moore's "brainy, humane, unpretentious . . . warm . . . lyrical [and] Lily-Tomlin-funny" way, by virtue of the distance I have from America, I can see that Moore appeals to those with sentiments like the "bubot or eelpout" fish served on Fridays at the Wie Haus Family Restaurant in Tassie's hometown, fish that are called "lawyers" because "their hearts were in their butts."  (p. 7.)

(Photo of Lorrie Moore in Madison, Wisconsin, 1999, from The New York Review of Books)  

Psorry, but Psmith Psucks

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Psmith.jpgNotwithstanding the title, I come to herald Caesar, not to bury him - Caesar being, of course, P.G. Wodehouse, the great comic novelist and short story writer.  Having no shortage of admiration for Wodehouse, I have recently begun to delve into his considerable repertoire outside the Wooster-Jeeves stories.  In so doing, I had the misfortune to pass more hours than I'd have liked in the company of Psmith, Journalist.  (The "P," in case you were wondering, is silent, as it is in "psoriasis.")

The plot of Psmith, Journalist sounded interesting: high-bred British Communist takes over a refined American weekly, Cozy Moments, and turns it into a radical rag.  But from the outset, the book sags.  (Or I should say, "psags.")  

P.G. Wodehouse never really got America.  That he loved it is abundantly clear.  But you have to get a place to skewer it.  He got England so well that his skewering is timeless.  But his American pieces are always a bit awry, and Psmith, Journalist is no exception.  The accents and character types are too stereotypical and two-dimensional.  In England, where repression has been necessary to maintain the "stiff upper lip" and manners for which the British are famous, stereotypical, two-dimensional people are usually secreting an individual beneath the surface.  In America, where earnestness is the watchword and repression is a mortal sin, stereotypes are as unoccupied as abandoned hermit crab shells.

Then there's Wodehouse's unfortunate use of terms like "wop," "dago" and "coon" in Psmith, Journalist, not to mention his descriptions of black people with "woolly head[s]" and "rolling eyes."  In contrast to his timeless British stories, Psmith, Journalist (which was published in 1915) is painfully, cringe-worthily dated.

And, although Wodehouse exhibits his typical mastery of plot (and its attendant twists) in Psmith, Journalist, his skills at characterization fail him.  Psmith's own motivations remain superficial and scantily addressed.  In the Jeeves-Wooster stories, love or freedom is the standard motivation for the hijinks: couples are trying to scrape together the financial means to get married, or men are trying to summon the gumption to propose (love); or men are trying to escape a bad marriage (freedom).  In Psmith, Journalist, Psmith is never doing more than amusing himself.  Nor is his bizarre habit of referring to everyone as "Comrade" - or his ostensible Communism - ever explained; it's as external an adornment to Psmith's person as his monocle.  

Additionally, Psmith, Journalist lacks a single female character.  Women, of course, were a major problem for P.G. Wodehouse to depict as human beings, an issue that may stem of his authorial struggle to sympathize with them.  But Wodehouse nonetheless used them wonderfully as foils for the character development of his vapid male characters, for whom he seemed to have no shortage of empathy.  (Jeeves, in fact, does similar foil-for-protagonist work in Wodehouse's stories.)  Fascinatingly, in the course of his explorations of the utilitarian benefits of female characters, Wodehouse created one brilliant, fully-realized, totally lovable and sympathetic female character: Aunt Dahlia.  Troublemaker, defender of the clan, foodie, fox hunter, magazine editor, devoted wife, blackmailer, gambler and articulater of some of the finest comic dialogue in literature, Aunt Dahlia (and not Jeeves) may well be Wodehouse's most astonishing achievement.

What redeems Psmith, Journalist and makes it worth reading is a similar opportunity to witness Wodehouse's extraordinary growth as an author.  As much as his towering literary achievements, Wodehouse's trajectory - from psucks to pstupendous - is an amazing legacy.  

Nonetheless, appreciating this kind of developmental legacy seems to be something of a challenge in the current publishing environment (and its penumbra of book criticism).  For instance, in a profile of novelist Nora Roberts about a year ago in The New Yorker, Lauren Collins made the eyebrow-raising statement, "Most writers have worked out the kinks in their writing by the time they are published."  Not if they're any good they haven't.

In my experience, as both a reader and a novelist, growth is an intrinsic part of a writer's process.  If a writer is engaged in the world, his or her work will not be static.  What wasn't a "kink" in an earlier work will be identified and ironed out in a later work.  This process happens over many articles, stories and books.  

Ian Rankin, for example, experienced this process and spoke on Bookslut about his "long apprenticeship" over seven Inspector Rebus novels, which led to his eighth, Black and Blue, being a breakthrough:

I felt it. When I started plotting [Black and Blue] and started writing it, I could feel that it was a different kind of book. It was initially given an injection from my close and passionate reading of James Ellroy. I went on a real tear with him. If you read the opening pages of Black and Blue, there's a real James Ellroy feel to them - very staccato sentences with a lot of slang that you might not know but that gives a lot of mood and character. I knew the book was going to be a lot darker and use a real-life case, which I had never done before.
. . . .
To me, it felt like a big important book.
Rankin was right, and just in time.  As he recounts in The Scruffy Dog Review

There were a lot of years back then when I just wasn't selling. The first six or seven books sold very poorly and then suddenly Black and Blue came along at a time when my publishers were getting ready to drop me. They felt they had done everything they could to try and break me into a bigger market, so they were getting ready to let another publisher take a shot . . . ."the books aren't selling, they're not getting well reviewed," and that was eight years of my writing career. I was panicking.
Black and Blue went on to win the Gold Dagger Award, and Rankin ultimately broke ground on the UK best seller list when six of his titles graced the Scottish Top 10 simultaneously.  By 2002, he'd received an O.B.E.

As the examples of P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Rankin suggest, if an author lives in Lauren Collins' world and doesn't publish until he or she works out the kinks, then one of two possibilities will occur.  Either he or she will not work out all the kinks.  (Ian Rankin wouldn't have written seven Inspector Rebus novels if the first hadn't been published.)  Or the author is going to starve.

P.G. Wodehouse didn't starve.  He was publishing from 1902 to 1974 (and even into 1978, posthumously).  His bibliography runs to something like a hundred books.  I can imagine that Wodehouse could relate to Samuel Johnson, who (as described by Andrew O'Hagan in The New York Review of Books)

while half-blind and aching with the gout, in a cold garret and dressed like a mendicant, formed his nation's dictionary and an entire multivolume edition of Shakespeare with commentary and notes, while also devoting himself to poetry, plays, hundreds of essays, parliamentary sketches, prayers, prefaces and multiple biographies . . . . [H]e believed that only work, only application, could justify the claims of a writer.   
Writers need to write if they're going to reach their pinnacles.  To write, they need to eat.  To eat, they need to publish.  To publish enough to eat, sometimes they need to publish crap, but only by writing and eating and publishing will the crap improve.

All of which is to say that Psmith is a pstep that Wodehouse had to take to give us Aunt Dahlia, and I'm psuper grateful that the publishing industry psupported Wodehouse in the course of his literary pstruggles.  This lesson is one that publishing will forget at psociety's expense.

(Image of Psmith from The Project Gutenberg)   

Ready for the shovel

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Somalia.jpgI wonder if anyone else has the experience of wanting to visit a place in exact proportion to the awfulness of its description.  I no sooner hear that a location is subject to such severe flooding that it can only be accessed on alternate Thursdays from October 1-12, and that, upon arrival, the locals will serve me a dish of fermented yak intestines, and I think: I have to go!  I can't hazard a guess as to how and when I drank from the tainted well from which this peculiar response springs, but I can attest to the pain it causes those who care about my well being.  For those of you thinking of describing your hells on earth to me, you'll do my mom a favor if you shade your account along the following lines: "Oh, Brazilian favelas?  They're lovely.  Quiet places where people sit outside on cleanly swept streets, drinking tap water and playing wholesome card games, like Go Fish."

Gerald Hanley's Warriors pushed my "must go to hell on earth" buttons.  Warriors is a memoir of Hanley's experience being posted in a variety of remote areas in Somalia during World War II.  The isolation was extreme, and he suffered many deprivations of food, intellectual stimulation, companionship, pay, etc.  His colleagues were committing suicide with a frequency that would have been impressive in a looney bin that'd run low on its meds.  So searing was his experience, that the first paragraph of his book asserts that,

it is in solitude that one can best understand that there is no solution, except to try and do as little harm as possible while we are here, that there is no losing and no winning, no real end to greed or lust, because the human appetite for novelty can only be fully satisfied by death.
(p. 7.)  Yet, despite his success in conveying viscerally the reality of his misery, I can't resist being charmed.  He makes the insanity he confronted sound so appealing:  

After the Somali troops under his command mutinied for the third time (they hadn't been paid in almost half a year), he gave an order that they could only mutiny on Fridays.  "They took it seriously," he reports (p. 13).  More on his troops:

Like white troops without cigarettes, they talked about ghee all day and night, but unlike white troops, held conferences about it, drew up statements, compiled measurements of the ghee they had not had, and must expect from me when the time of ghee came again, and some of them would come trembling with fury to me about the ghee, after having worked each other up over the camp-fire.
(p. 156-57.)  Then there was the case of the sleepwalking girl, staggering across the village in the dark hours, past curfew, because the elders had summoned her by means of magic.  "I gave [the matter] meticulous examination and was satisfied it was magic," says Hanley.  "I had to tell the askaris [the soldiers] to let this girl walk in her sleep whenever she was called, until the end of the curfew."  (p. 113.)    

Or the case of one of his colleagues who was trying to broker a peace between rival chiefs ready to send their tribes to war.  Beaten down by fruitless negotiations that rehearsed decades-old arguments that had been as useless then as they were now, and watching the chiefs depart to summon their warriors, the colleague said,

"'Remember that it is the elephant asleep in the long grass which defeats the greatest men."  He had no idea what he meant . . . and told me he had said it cynically, out of weariness, exhausted anger, but the chiefs stared at him, exchanged glances with each other, and nodded, went on nodding, and sat down, saying, "let us thrash this matter out again.  That is a splendid thing you have said."
(p. 154.)  And, speaking of saying splendid things, how about this "genealogy" insult hurled by Hanley's cook at his servant:  "'Son of a sick hyena, grandson of a noseless thief, descendant of vultures, father to be of a hermaphrodite baboon, filth and refuse untouchable, animal without religion' - and so on."  (p. 168.)

I love it!  I want to go!  Sadly, the Somalia of World War II doesn't exist anymore, and the one that currently occupies the horn of Africa is so explosive that breathing next to it is a hazard.  But never mind the impossibility: Hanley's hell is on my list of places to visit.

Why?  Undoubtedly, Hanley's storytelling skill and compelling authorial voice is part of the reason.  A good storyteller draws in the audience, even as he or she is saying, "Go away."  Go away, forsooth!  I want to know why I should, tell me more . . .

But even crap storytellers inspire my wanderlust: I've heard perfectly foul storytellers recount information about Senegal, Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand - half the globe, really - and I still want to go.  Hanley would understand.  As he says towards the end of Warriors:

There is an enormous difference between the man who emerges from a safely ensconced segment of society, and the one who is flung into a world in which the shovel is waiting for him.  I recommend the latter to all as a far more exciting world to be thrown into.
(p. 201.)

(Map of Somalia from the UN website)  
Thomas_Cromwell.pngThe organization of information is a particular passion of mine.  How a society organizes its information determines its culture, its values and the means by which it exercises power.  

For example, as Walter J. Ong explains in his brilliant contribution to human thought, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, oral cultures must organize their information so that the important bits are retained and readily accessed in memory (p. 32-77).  Hence, oral cultures emphasize proverbs (as a distillation of wisdom), rhymed and rhythmic verse (easier to remember), and vivid, gory rhetoric that glorifies violence (makes a strong impression on the listener).  The results for culture, values and the exercise of power?  Epic poetry; devaluing critical thinking (too destabilizing to communal wisdom); superstition (a result of a critical thinking vacuum); and non-rational, superstition-, brute force- and violence-heavy means of exercising power.

So I was intrigued to see Joan Acocella explain, in her review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in The New Yorker, that the reign of Henry VIII was a period of radical reorganization of information in England.  Citing the historian G.R. Elton, Acocella writes that, under Thomas Cromwell (the protagonist of Wolf Hall), "English political policy, formerly at the whim of the nobles, became the work of specialized bureaucracies. England thereby progressed from the Middle Ages into the modern period."

The need for these bureaucracies arose, of course, because of the proliferation of information.  The greater the quantity of information that needs to be organized, the less likely that an individual mind can manage it with proverbs and epic poems (although both get people pretty far, pace Homer).  

And, sure enough, both these points - the limits of memory, and the proliferation of information - are emphasized in leit motifs in Wolf Hall.  In a sub-sub-plot, Thomas Cromwell tries to obtain a memory device built by Guido Camillo.  The thingamajig is a cabinet with drawers inside of drawers, described as

a theatre on the ancient Vitruvian plan.  But it is not to put on plays. . . . The owner of the theatre . . . stand[s] in the centre of it, and look[s] up.  Around you there is arrayed a system of human knowledge.  Like a library, but as if - can you imagine a library in which each book contains another book, and a smaller book inside that?
(p. 472.)  In a foreshadowing of the fate to befall prodigious memory in a literate future, Cromwell never obtains the device.  (Indeed, Camillo never finishes building it.)

Mantel also makes sly and amusing references to the information "avalanche" burying her sixteenth century characters:

[King Henry VIII] slips into his mouth an aniseed comfit, and snaps down on it.  "Already there are too many books in the world.  There are more every day.  One man cannot hope to read them all."
(p. 472)

When the last treason act was made, no one could circulate their words in a printed book or bill, because printed books were not thought of.  [Thomas Cromwell] feels a moment of jealousy towards the dead, to those who served kings in slower times than these; nowadays the products of some bought or poisoned brain can be disseminated through Europe in a month.
(p. 492)  In a month!?  Cromwell, pity us the Internet!

Historical periods of reorganization of information are particularly rich, since they invariably involve upheavals of culture and power as well.  In such periods, opportunity (as much as ruin) abounds.  Out of the churn, the long shot can win; the lowborn son-of-a-blacksmith can become the adviser to a King and second-most-important in the nation.  

While Cromwell has long been paired with the adjective "Machiavellian," Mantel suggests that his patron saint may not be Niccolo, but Melvil Dewey.  Mantel makes a persuasive case that Cromwell's greatest asset was not his cunning, propensity to manipulate others or hunger for power, but his awareness and understanding of how information was being reorganized and the ramifications of the new order - especially the increasing importance of the financial industry.  Here, for example, is the commoner Cromwell besting the noble Earl of Northumberland in a battle of wills over Anne Boleyn:

How can [Cromwell] explain to [Harry Percy, Earl of Northumberland]?  The world is not run from where he thinks.  Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall.  The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun.  Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.
(p. 378).  Whether Mantel is correct, historically, about Cromwell's gift, the lesson for us is clear.  We are currently living through a historic moment during which information is being radically reorganized.  Digitization of traditionally printed materials, along with decreases in the consumption of printed materials (which face massive competition from television, movies, Internet, and video games), are only two of the monumental shifts in information organization that are impacting our era.  Awareness and understanding of these changes are our keys to leveraging them for profit (personal, political, financial or otherwise).  Short of this consciousness, we'll have to fall back on being Machiavellian to succeed.

(Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, after Hans Holbein the Younger, from The Daily Mail)
 

Of wisdom and imperial ambivalence

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Gerald_Hanley_by_John_Huston.pngGerald Hanley's Warriors is an extraordinary book for many reasons, including the ambivalence it expresses about colonialism.  

Warriors was published in 1971.  To get a feel for the sentiments about colonialism in that era, consider a statement by Charles Miller, in his author's note to The Lunatic Express, a book about the construction of the Uganda Railway across Kenya, also published in 1971:

[I]t is hardly possible not to have an opinion about the British Empire. . . . For the record, I think that the British Empire, with all its horrendous failings, was on balance a good thing.  I mourned its passing.
(p. viii.)  On the other side of the issue, here's James Beauttah, a leader of the Kikuyu Central Association, quoted in Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham's book, The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya, published in 1966:

"Our society had [been] broken down [by colonialism] and the unity that we had in our old structure had been replaced by everyone fighting for himself, everyone on his own against all the troubles that had been brought to us.  There was a fundamental growing disunity that was our weakness. . . . [W]e had had so many wishes and ambitions awakened in us and then always the door slammed in our face.  This is worse than never having the ambitions wakened in the first place, far, far, worse."  
(p. 243.)  Now here's Hanley, distilling his observations about colonialism, gathered during his military service in Somalia during World War II:

[T]here is nothing fine or noble about savagery and illiteracy and superstition, no matter how splendid looking the warriors and the women.  After a good long dose of savagery it is interesting how much one has learned to prefer the gentle and the sophisticated.  Primitivism is a very much overrated way of life, and is merely pitiful in essence, no matter how fascinating the carvings and the masks and the quiet zoomorphic ravings on stone and wood, those endless circles in which the tribe has wandered and lost itself, waiting for the stranger to come with the message, even when it leads to the atom bomb.
. . . .
After the enormous orgy of torture and massacre in Europe and Asia [during WWII], I felt it was impossible for any white man to preach again, self-righteously, about goodness and peace, to any non-white man.  And that shame may have been the reason, bigger than African and Eastern restlessness, which caused the white man to pack his kit and go home after the second world war.  We must have all felt something of that shame, I think, and acted upon it without really knowing why.
. . . .
Yet ironically enough, while the conquered everywhere resented losing their country and their freedom, they nearly always took advantage of the policed peace forced upon them, nearly always relaxed, their swords left at home, yet they wanted their country back for themselves, while enjoying the "peace of the grave," as Pandit Nehru once called it, in which they now toiled under aliens. . . . [T]ime is always on the side of the original owners, if they can only survive.
(p. 73-74, 86.)  Later, Hanley quotes a Somali chief:

"We are lending you the labourers," he told me.  "But only because you are living with us here on the river, and because you have spoken well, and not because we recognise this new government which has replaced the Italians.  We do not want to be ruled by any strangers anymore.  They beat us with cannon, but ever inch of this land is ours.  Ours.  It can never belong to any strangers.  Men cannot live under strangers who have taken their lands.  Never.  If I had a spear and you had nothing and I came and took your house from you, and made you work in your own garden for me, you would not like that.  That is what they have done, these governments.  And it must come to an end now.  You can tell them that, for that is what we all feel."
Hanley was moved by the chief's speech.  "I agreed with every word he said," Hanley admits, concluding, "All these people everywhere would have to be let free, left alone, lectured to no more, or this war would be as useless as the last one."  (p. 91.)

Taken together, these excerpts from Hanley reveal a multi-faceted understanding of colonialism that glitters with accuracy.  Eschewing both the "on balance" opinion-drawing of Miller and the focused accusations of Beauttah, Hanley sees: (1) opportunities for a modern life, in contrast to traditional, pre-modern living, as being a good thing, despite the risks, (2) colonized peoples enjoying the benefits of those opportunities, despite resenting having these benefits and risks forced upon them, (3) white men as having no legitimacy to press those opportunities and risks upon non-whites, and (4) the inevitability of white men having to give up trying.  In essence, Hanley achieves the same understanding as Tayeb Salih, who - writing about colonialism in the Sudan in his masterpiece novel Season of Migration to the North - typically offered his insight with more poetry and concision: "[T]he [British] coming too was not the tragedy as we imagine, nor yet a blessing as they imagine."  (p. 60.)

The conflict inherent in this position - I cannot bestow benefits without costs too high; I cannot receive benefits without losses too great - is wrenching.    A mere glance at the current states of constant war in Somalia and the Sudan, and the abysmal governance in Kenya - and at the thousands of refugees, impoverished, starving and violence-traumatized people  in these countries - confirms that, had a resolution to this fundamental conflict been possible, people on both sides of the colonial equation would have been better off.

But to say that is a little like saying (I don't want to push the analogy too far) that, had Communism been able to work out its kinks, the world would have been a better place.  On balance, colonialism wasn't (and isn't) a blessing, any more than Communism was (and is) a blessing.  They are both systems that can be shown viable in abstract form, but the models can't be applied in practice.

The reason is that this basic conflict of being unable either to convey or receive benefits without costs and losses being unacceptable is a dynamic that pervasively poses obstacles to human engagement.  It's not merely the fly in the ointment of colonialism; it's a feature common to all aspects of the the human landscape, be they familial, professional, economic, sexual, creative, political or ecological.  Negotiating this conflict is an integral part of human engagement with "others" - be they our parents, our neighbors, our employers, our creditors, our lovers, our collaborators, our politicians or our environmental resources.

And negotiations notoriously end, neither in victory nor defeat, but in compromise: neither tragedies, nor blessings, they are simple enablers to living.  Hanley's wisdom comes in accepting this fact with ambivalence.

(Drawing of Gerald Hanley by John Huston, 1970s, from Warriors)    

A mellow (hued) Othello

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John_Ortiz_and_Philip_Seymour_Hoffman_in_Othello.jpgMy New Yorker reading is irregular these days.  The magazine has gone downhill (in my opinion) and, since I've gone across the hill and around the bend in the river - to India or Kenya or wherever - the issues sometimes take months to find me.  (Yes, I do occasionally read it online, but I dislike The New Yorker's online edition.)  All of which is to say, I just got around to reading a Hilton Als' review from last October, and not withstanding its vintage, I'm going to weigh in and comment.

Als was reviewing Peter Sellars' production of Othello, starring John Ortiz as the title character and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago.  In a provocative move, Sellars' cast a Latino (Ortiz) as Othello, rather than casting a black actor (or even more traditionally, a white-actor-in-blackface).  Als didn't think much of this choice:

Shakespeare's music . . . is not distinct from his narratives or from the actors' behavior; we need to both see and hear his characters' intentions.  Which means, unavoidably, that Othello must be black.
Considering that, earlier in his review, Als quotes the Shakespeare scholar Daniel Vitkus saying that, in 1604, when Othello was written, "black skin color was understood . . . primarily with symbolic logic," Als has made a pretty dense pronouncement.

In fact, Othello wasn't black.  He was a Moor - a man originally of North African origin.  North Africans don't look like what Americans typically identify as "black."  ("Black" in this sense usually indicates a person from - or with ancestors from - sub-Saharan Africa.)  Often, the skin tone of North Africans is consistent with that of people from the Middle East or, say, Latin America.

Othello's many references to Othello's blackness were not, in their original intent, entirely literal.  As Vitkus suggests, the references are symbolic.  When Desdemona's father, Brabantio, complains about "an old black ram . . . tupping . . . [his] white ewe," "black" is not so much a description of Othello's skin, as it is of his soul.  Brabantio thinks Othello is evil.  

This Elizabethan use of "black" finds echoes in the way Americans used to classify people as "black" according to the "one drop" rule.  People who could pass for white (e.g., Homer Plessy, of Plessy v. Ferguson fame, or Anatole Broyard) would have been labeled "black" under this definition.

To understand these mindsets of the past - the Elizabethan pseudo-spiritual, and the American pseudo-genetic - we must witness what actually happened: white people calling someone "black" who, to our eyes, isn't.  Sellars' casting gave audiences that experience.

If Als had his way, audiences would be limited to an interpretation of Othello that is narrow, ahistorical and unimaginative.  Als' critique self-righteously insists that the provincialism of current thinking is exclusively correct.  For all the harm Als' perspective does to Othello, reducing and diminishing the character, I can only think that Iago would approve.

(Image of Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz from The New York Times)

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