Thursday, January 26, 2006

Carlos Fuentes and Multiculturalism.

On a day when I began by struggling against viruses and was unable to post a short story that I had written, I think that this essay is a most appropriate response. The censors will never win. The image accompanying this essay may be blocked and the text may be altered. "Errors" may be inserted at any time. I will do my best to make corrections as they are needed.

Anne Freemantle, ed., Latin American Literature Today (New York: New American Library, 1977).
Carlos Fuentes, "Cervantes, or the Critique of Reading," and "Borges in Action," in Myself With Others: Selected Essays (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1988), pp. 49-72, 140-160.

During recent decades a number of "culture wars" have raged over the definition of national identity and the direction of intellectual life in American society. Is there a single "canon" of Great Books at the center of higher education in the humanities? If there is such a canonical list, then do works that we think of as belonging to it necessarily reflect the values of a particular ethnic group, race, economic class or gender as opposed to (or at the expense of) the values of others? Is it likely that great works can lead us to see from within our own cultures what is "central" and all that is "eccentric" to them? Can there be works of art that are truly universal?

These issues are important because their resolution will define culture for us. And culture is important because, as a lecturer once expressed it, "culture is where our meanings come from."

If there is a single burning need in our time that I am sure is of crucial importance, then it must be this yearning for "meaning." We want our lives to mean something rather than to dissolve in trendy platitudes. To find such meanings, it will be essential to come to terms with the tradition that we inherit. Psychobabble and New Age drivel are just not enough for most people, except for Californians perhaps.

Peter Gabel has written of this quest for meaning and has also warned of the dangers resulting from the absence of meaning in so much of our politics and social life today. Harold Bloom has offered a defense of the Western literary tradition, most especially Shakespeare, as essential to this quest for meaning and has described the enemies of the canon as "the school of resentment."

At Stanford University and elsewhere not so long ago students were heard to shout: "hey, hey; ho, ho! Western culture has to go."

This was the slogan of those seeking to alter the, allegedly, "Eurocentric" Great Books course offered at that university, which is similar to the introductory courses in the humanities offered today at many American universities and colleges. The changes to such courses made during the past two decades have yet to be fully evaluated. It is too soon for that. Much hostility to efforts at "inclusion" continues to exist. Students continue to express reservations about the "excessive" attention devoted in introductory courses to the works of "Dead White European Males." The controversy over whether there are some books that are better than others and over who gets to decide which books are better and why, or whether any such list needs to be "representative," is unresolved.

I believe that there are some books that are greater and more significant than others -- more important, too.

U.S. society should seek to educate persons so that they can understand and appreciate -- and also criticize -- the founding values of the society, its tradition of great texts, thereby contributing to society's continuing efforts at self-examination and improvement.

Such an education is a life-long project, not something to be accomplished in one university course. Universities are a good place to start on such a project. For many people, exposure to the classics takes place only at school. Reading such books is no longer part of most people's adult lives.

What a society decides to regard as central to its cultural and intellectual life is, thus, important to its self-understanding.

At the center of this discussion is the dilemma of deciding how we are to define terms like "multiculturalism" or "Western," and what we mean by the "canon" (the theological origins of the word are revealing), as these terms are used in this heated controversy. Most troubling of all, are the terms "universality" and "human nature," which have become contested territory in what is now a political controversy as well as a discussion of aesthetic values.

The best discussion of this topic that I have read is a speech by Carlos Fuentes delivered to the "American Center of P.E.N." some years ago and later published in an anthology: "Central and Eccentric Writing," in Anne Freemantle, ed., Latin American Literature Today (New York: New American Library, 1977), p. 130.

I wish to consider the multiculturalism debate through a dialogue with this text.

Fuentes begins with a distinction between what he calls "central" and "eccentric" writers and writing:

There are those who write from "within a culture that deems itself central [and others] who write from the boundaries of eccentricity -- an eccentricity defined by the central culture's claims to 'univerality.' " (p. 131.)

By now the objections to an "imperial" understanding of Western culture are familiar and persuasive:

"The central culture tends to believe that it speaks with the words of God, or at least, that it has a direct and open line to the ear of the Divinity." (p. 131.)

Furthermore, "the central culture is seen by [what it defines as] 'marginal' cultures as offensive, self-serving, devouring, one that imposes its own values and is scornful of any values that are alien to it." (p. 131.)

The historical dominance of the West, defined in monolithic terms, has imposed the task of conformity on humanity, denying all that is different or strange, all that does not wear a suit or adopt Western mores, along with the West's conceptions of legitimacy and value. It was the West that claimed the authority, through its advanced technology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and beyond, to establish the parameters of "normality," to decide what is meant by human nature for everyone else on the planet.

Fuentes speaks of "... the fixed, universal and eternal 'human nature' " embodied in, say, Europeans and Americans of the elite social strata, which is "imperfectly developed, as John Locke put it, 'in children, [women?] madmen and savages.' " (p. 131.) ("Master and Commander.")

We should all reject this notion today. As a Mexican writer, aware of the humiliations experienced by his country and the profound injustices and legacy of Western imperialism, offered the opportunity to speak to writers in the United States by a Polish-born American novelist, Jerzy Kosinski, equally aware of the historical humiliations of his native land, Carlos Fuentes knows that he would have been an unlikely guest at the tea parites attended by Jane Austen's characters.

One would not have found the striking workers from Manchester at such parties either, nor the intellectuals and artists who advocated their cause.

The dominant and unilateral Western conception of human nature was rightly found oppressive and confining, so that it became necessary for writers from "those other places" to escape it, in order to find their own voices and convey their own messages.

I agree with Fuentes that even writers within the Western tradition found it necessary to do the same. As an example of a central writer, Fuentes points to Jane Austen:

"Perhaps Jane Austen is the classic example of a writer in harmony with the values of her society." (p. 132.)

I also agree with Fuentes that Western "predominance" in culture, to say nothing of the brutalities of imperialism and its legacy, have been experienced, with good reason, by many of the world's peoples -- who do not fit the "somatic" or any of the other norms of the Western elites -- as profoundly unjust and even evil.

I disagree with the identification of Jane Austen as a representative of this category, however, and I reject any implication that Austen was an apologist for the status quo. In some ways, she remains one of the most subversive writers in the English tradition, making use of sharp observation, keen intelligence and satire, great wit and humor (the traditional weapons of the politically powerless), to launch blistering yet still amusing and entertaining critiques of her society. ("David Stove and the Intellectual Capacity of Women.")

In all that is captured on the page by this English writer one sees the plight of those young ladies of the middle class in their golden cages, most of whom would not be literary geniuses -- like Jane Austen -- trapped in an increasingly desperate hunt for husbands to define and legitimate their lives, since on their own, they were thought of as "nothing" (or subhuman) in their society.

Some of us know what that is like today -- to be thought of as "nothing," in New York or Los Angeles. ("An Open Letter to My Torturers in New Jersey, Terry Tuchin and Diana Lisa Riccioli.")

We foreign-born Americans -- or all immigrants -- are the "little people who make the world turn." We are like "mice" that rich, comfortable, and well-fed fellow citizens may safely ignore as we have little to say (or teach) about the conditions in which many billions must live their lives in this world. Persons, like Dick Cheney, are here to "instruct" us. ("Serendipity, III.")

I write every day without knowing whether I will find my essays altered by hackers the next morning. I am experiencing criminal attacks and destruction of my creative work. This is ignored by the authorities, despite the public nature of these offenses.

Even at my own expense, my books are not distributed to book sellers. The only possible conclusion is that, for powerful people in this society, I am not a "person." How could I not understand those women's lives? I am living such a life. ("How Censorship Works in America" and "Censorship and Cruelty in New Jersey.")

I am not exaggerating the desperation of those Austen women. They could not work as "genteel" ladies, could not attend universities or vote, could not own property. As unmarried women, they were invisible beings, so that the best comparison to be made, despite their wealth and "prettiness," is to slaves. In fact, read and see the film version of Mansfield Park.

Jane Austen spoke for those women, not necessarily with a political agenda or in an explicitly ideological fashion, but in terms of revealing their daily predicament and suffering. The Napoleonic wars were an offstage presence in most of her stories because her concern was with the daily realities of trapped women, who rarely made an appearance in the English literature of the time other than as decoration or trophies.

These mostly middle-class women could never really be heard -- before Jane Austen -- in their own authentic and honest voices. Yet suddenly this "spinster of the middle class," to quote W.H. Auden, was teaching us all about the "amorous effects of brass."

Jane Austen anticipates -- and in some ways surpasses -- both Karl Marx and Charles Dickens. More than this, in speaking for powerless women, Jane Austen spoke for all of us, who are uncertain of how to behave at social gatherings among self-defined "elites," for those of us who know at first hand what it feels like to be ignored or dismissed, trivialized and insulted, ridiculed, silenced and denied our measure of respect. ("What is it like to be tortured?" and, soon, "What is it like to be raped?")

To know such things, at first hand -- for example, to be suppressed and censored -- is to be placed in the position of the feminine in relation to the masculine in Western culture.

A popular insult that is still directed at so-called social "inferiors" by certain powerful men in the U.S., concerns the inadequate "masculinity" of those social inferiors. Political "weakness" or "lack of money" makes us "like women." For powerful American men, of course, there is nothing worse that one can be than "feminine."

As a heterosexual male, I prefer the company of most women to that of such men. I wear all "manly" insults with pride, especially when they result from my interest in Opera or the arts.

The snub of a country spinster at a ball or tea party, as observed by Ms. Austen (she deserves the "Ms."), is far from a trivial occurence. It is a devastating indictment of the ways in which a sexist society can diminish and crush the spirit of a person by relegating her concerns in life to a single question of whether she will marry, or which suitor will "deign" to accept her, based (if she is lucky) on her "property," or his lack of property. Yet Austen is a Western writer, deservedly placed on any canonical list of great writers. I can not think of a writer more likely to awaken one's "sensibilities." ("Is there a gay marriage right?")

Austen's Marianne Dashwood and Catherine Morland -- along with Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse, who is said to represent a type of English young woman still to be found in the vicinity of "Notting Hill" where tourists report the occasional sighting of Hugh Grant -- belong together, almost in the same category with Prince Hamlet or King Lear, as revelations of human character in all of its complexity and subtlety. Ms. Austen comes closer than most others have to Shakespeare's unparalled genius. ("The Northanger Arms on Park Avenue.")

Significantly, in this essay written by one of the greatest literary artists of our times, Carlos Fuentes, the male pronoun is used unselfconsciously to include both genders or all of humanity. This usage is something I have been taught to recognize as inappropriate, even as I hope to avoid the absurdities of more eccentric versions of "political correctness." (Although I am 5', 8" tall, I refuse to describe myself as "height-deprived," although "vertically challenged" is a phrase that does appeal to me, possibly in a different context.)

My point is that we can choose to focus on Austen's blindness to the ways in which she benefitted from some of the social injustices underlying her society (and those are valid Marxist criticisms), or we can concentrate on her recognition of the much more enormous and fundamental contradictions of her time and place that affected the lives of ordinary and far from perfect people in her own social circle, which are not dissimilar to the things that we must contend with in our own quest for meaning. I will opt for the second alternative.

I will choose to regard Jane Austen as writing "for" me as much as for anyone else. Fuentes acknowledges that it was women who were his greatest teachers (and mine too!), in literature and life. From Jane Austen's seeming acceptance of her society's politics, Fuentes turns to Emily Bronte's discontent.

Western culture, yes, but which version of Western culture? Or whose Western culture? Do we mean the works of the apologists for the system? Or those of its critics? Shall we listen to the eccentrics, the mad, visionaries and poets, brown and black as well as white, or those of mixed heritage? Shall we appeal to the radical and revolutionary values emerging during those same two centuries in the Western world, alongside the defenses of imperialism and capitalism?

Romantic and revolutionary values were also Western values. They were concerned with "liberating" people from the oppressive tyranny of the Church and aristocrats. This oppositionist, contrarian, or Romantic movement has always been part of the Western tradition, even at the height of the Age of Reason, which culminates with the principles of the American and French revolutions that brought together the final insights of the Enlightenment and the exploding passions of Romanticism.

Those Modern principles were and are dangerous -- for they ushered in an era of interpretation that would lead, and still leads, to the breaking of chains in many places and settings in the world, and must continue to do so, even in their places of origin. ("Time to End the Embargo Against Cuba.")

It has been suggested that the most dangerous and revolutionary act possible for all of us is to read. The struggle for access to books and freedom of thought, waged by philosophers like Mary Wollstonecraft and later to recover from books (see Mill's Autobiography), is best compared, again, with the struggle of slaves to read and think for themselves, as in the Autobiography of Fredrick Douglass.

Mill's inhuman education had deprived him of contact with emotions, art, and his own spirituality which he rediscovered through poetry and literature. For me, it was the opposite: Books kept me sane in a world that denies my values and seeks to destroy all that I am and what I cherish.

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois insisted, as indicated by Cornel West, that:

"All [we] wanted to be is human beings who could be American and also acknowledge their African heritage."

Jane Austen's characters are asking, often unconsciously, to be regarded as women and also as human beings, a recognition which has yet to be fully achieved or received by women. Jane Austen never imagined or intended that such a dream would be interpreted as an invitation to denigrate the humanity of men.

In the opening pages of Christopher Hitchens's recent book on the life of Thomas Jefferson, for example, we encounter in Jefferson's final letter, an explicit recognition of the universalist and emancipatory mission of the "unfinished American revolution" -- which is to "break the chains" of many millions throughout the world, including what even Jefferson must have recognized as his life drew to a close, ending slavery based on race in the United States.

Even more, Jefferson hoped to destroy forever the common government practice of controlling the inner-life -- or forms of expression -- of all persons, regardless of race, gender, sexual-orientation or the unpopularity of the opinions expressed.

During recent years alarming totalitarian tendencies exploiting psychological methods have emerged to threaten the always endangered Jeffersonian quest for freedom and self-defined identities:

"We see the operation of a capricious proceduralism outside of law, and the production of the prison as a site for the intensification of managerial tactics untethered to law, and bearing no relation to trial, to punishment, or to the rights of prisoners. We see, in fact, an effort to produce a secondary judicial system and a sphere of non-legal detention that effectively produces the prison itself" -- in society, secretly -- "as an extra-legal sphere maintained by the extra-judicial power of the state." (See "Foucault, Rose, Davis and the Meanings of Prison.")

Judith Butler, Indefinite Detention: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2006), p. 92.

One of the foremost legal theorists in the United States, R.M. Dworkin, has described law as the working out of the meaning of a people's key principles found in the foundational documents or understandings of their society in which the great judge (Dworkin calls him "Hercules," but we might choose a feminine name and pronoun, perhaps "Hillary") seeks to establish the best result that fits the tradition ("integrity in law"), as well as the facts of the case before him or her.

These fundamental principles "trump" utilities or policies, are concerned with the vindication of rights of the individual and are not collectivist or necessarily majoritarian in their purposes or orientation. Vindicating such rights may even require an anti-majoritarian gesture. Deciding what is the best "fit" is a matter, among other things, of reading very intelligently and in the confidence that it is possible to get conclusions right. For Dworkin, the essence of legal reasoning is interpretation -- and in American society, after Chief Justice Marshall's decision in Marburry v. Madison, deciding what the law means and requires will (and should always be) the responsibility of the judiciary.

There is a liberating tradition within the Western heritage that belongs to all of us, including those of us who invoke Western values in criticizing imperialism and the West itself. This contrarian tradition in the West, which is found in much of its great literature, belongs to everyone -- including those of us who know what it is like to be marginalized -- because it comes out of and speaks to what is universal in human beings.

The person inserting "errors" in this essay is a sadly deformed individual whose fascination with language and ideas is offset by a fear and envy of what she cannot control, linguistic genius and the madness of art. There is no greater curse than to desire what she cannot have because she cannot understand or appreciate the mystery of aesthetic achievement. A great book, painting, symphony or a beautiful person is an achievement of "freedom" whose thriving and independence must be desired. These are entities that can never be "owned" by anyone, like your loves, they can and must thrive only in freedom -- music, visual arts, poetry and the soul of the beloved are to be liberated, not possessed. Love can only be kept by being given away.

The "protean" conception of human nature as variable and nevertheless universal, as a kind of freedom that is always capable of "containing multitudes" without borders or a single color, or that is made of all colors, is another way of speaking of freedom. By this understanding, what is most fundamentally human is impossible to confine within the categories of gender, race, ethnicity or economic class, which may be the point of a subversive reading of Jane Austen's novels and of the use of her work for our purposes of liberation.

It is this understanding of a "free" (unbounded) human nature that is found in the best readings of the U.S. Constitution. Nothing would have pleased Jane Austen more than to spark conversations for us, except for greater royalties of course.

We can delight in the novels of Jane Austen or in the philosophical essays of Cornel West, or in the novels of Carlos Fuentes or of his friend William Styron or Susan Sontag, because of all that transcends the particular in their works. Works containing lasting beauties and truths that any of us may care about. There is no warning label attached to their writings indicating that only persons of a particular race or educational level, or from a particular school, are permitted to read these writings. Fuentes recognizes that what I call the "contrarian" element in and beyond Western culture:

" ... enabled me to make use of my Western inheritance without giving up my own Latin American, meztiso, Indian-colored realities. For what was Emily Bronte but the outcast within the center, the visionary writer who dissolved the hypnosis of the future by the consecration of the instant of passion, preferred love to property, clung to the reality of myth as a constant present, and shunned the illusion of progress. In the enduring myth of the couple, the body, its transfigurations, its splendors and miseries, she confirmed for me the tragic knowledge of the enemy self [Carl Jung's "shadow" self that is to be accepted and transcended, lovingly] ... the exiled lovers on the lonely moors, the woman and the man in whom I could recognize all the women and all the men uninvited to Jane Austen's tea parties or having to disguise themselves at the [parties] at the Duchesse de Guermantes'." (p. 136.)

Writing of the Parzival myth in Western literature, Lindsay Clarke comments:

"... of its very nature, the imagination is a faculty that seeks to hold contraries together in creative tension rather than letting them split off into destructive conflict, and is therefore a resource sorely needed by many warring couples, divided families and embattled communities ... For properly understood magic [see my earlier comments on witchcraft in my essay on the ethics of John Finnis] is the activity of the imagination -- that power which conjures doves out of darkness, redeems the tormented soul from its cabinet of knives, and brings about change in ways which seem to defy the rational mind."

Parzival and the Stone From Heaven (London: Thornton's, 2001), p. 232.

And again:

"Following his heroes through the landscape of the soul, the poet bravely explores the range of his creative power in ways that are enriched by a hard-won, [and] searching knowledge of the self and by compassion for others. So the question this fable [and all great stories] pose to the imagination is not, 'What is the meaning of life?' Rather it seeks to ask, 'How can we best live our lives so that they feel rich in meaning?' "

Parzival, p. 233.

Fuentes concludes that "the revolt against the central culture's monopoly of universality has become the story of our common literature." (p. 137.) Elsewhere, Fuentes speaks of the "theft of the logos" by Europe and America. The effort by writers and readers to meet in the "community of the text," in response to this deprivation, should not be ridiculed by those incapable of understanding it.

This finding of community in literary tradition and language may be associated with the key insights of the "theologian of revolution" Ernst Bloch or within the essays of Walter Benjamin, and Marxist aesthetics generally (Terry Eagleton), also in Jewish mysticism in kaballa or its Christian counterpart in gnosis. ("Drawing Room Comedy: A Philosophical Essay in the Form of a Film Script.")

The effort to find what is universal is an attempt to achieve a "transcendence" of the particulars that divide us by confronting us with a more fundamental set of concerns that unite us, such as: the recognition of our shared mortality as well as this human need for meaning, or what Peter Gabel calls "unalienated relatedness." Here is where American discussions of tragedy belong, more than in debates over the details of pragmatist philosophy in James or Dewey. Try Emerson or Whitman, Hemingway or Faulkner as well as James or Dewey. Read Richard Rorty, then John Updike and Gore Vidal, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.

In literature we are "linked by common purposes and a feeling of community that supersede[s] our national boundaries [and other boundaries too,] yet thrives on the contributions of our particular cultures and individualities." (p. 143.)

I prefer to speak simply of love. Rather than reducing ourselves or others to stereotypes, we can try to write what we feel and experience as accurately as possible, so that readers who find their way to our texts, may recognize their own thoughts, hopes and pains reflected in ours. For many writers -- I sense this mood in diverse artists, such as Kafka and Borges -- writing is a final and desperate effort at communication with those few tormented others "out there," who may share enough of the author's vision to understand him or her. To destroy such a writer's work is to crush his or her spirit. Hence, the tragedies of Reinaldo Arenas or Sylvia Plath. This may be a good time for New Jersey to insert another "error" in this essay.

"We read," it has been said, "to know that we are not alone." (See the film Shadowlands, Debra Winger's performance alone justifies the experience.)

As Fuentes emphasizes, the writer is always involved in a paradox: "He [or she] works alone but with the most socialized of tools: language." (p. 144.) In using a language, as either a writer or reader, we may be involved in a common project already. We commit ourselves to sharing something universal to human beings, which is the capacity to express and convey meaning.

In the beginning was the "word" (logos), so that the use of language, as George Steiner suggests, is a "wager on the meaning of meaning, on the potential of insight and response when one human voice addresses another, when we come face to face with the text ... which is to say when we encounter the other in its condition of freedom, [and it] is a wager on transcendence." Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989), p. 4.

In this literary space, Fuentes says, we can "only meet in friendship and hope." (p. 145.) We can only meet with love. He adds: "I mean to say that all great writing [-- regardless of the gender, ethnicity or color of the author --] has become eccentric to the central verities of modern society, that literature is the fiery ritual of introducing God to the Devil and seeing the angelic feathers cringe and singe, and of introducing the devil to God and seeing the demonic horns become a halo. ... Thus literature does make eccentrics of us all, and thus we live in Pascal's awesome circle, where the center is nowhere and the circumference everywhere. But if we are all marginal, then we are all central." (pp. 140-141.)

The solution must be to include more varieties of expression within our concepts of beauty, but to hang on to what is best and most liberating in the tradition of our Western, and now also increasingly global culture. It has been said that "sometimes we meet the enemy and it is us." The hopeful message in this essay by Fuentes is that in the very act of "meeting" -- in language and through literature -- enemies are transformed into friends. For we then discover what Ghandi taught us: "We must become the change that we envision."

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