Hearts are Dark

For the most part, reading introductions to literary works is tedious.  Since this edition of Heart of Darkness was brief enough, and the introduction wasn’t as long as the novel, I decided to follow through.  I’m glad I did.  I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s classic before, but it was helpful to have pointed out before this reading just how much darkness is in the story.  Drawn in by Kurtz’s famous last words, I suspect, many readers make the heart of the darkness the life lived by this contradiction of a man.  An individual who’d set himself up as a deity, and who pillaged the region for his own gain.  A man who wasn’t above using terror to acquire his ends.  An enigma.

But in actual fact, the story is about as full of darkness as an early Bruce Springsteen album.  The story begins at sunset and ends at night.  There is darkness to the Europeans’ dealing with the Africans throughout.  Even Marlow participates in that interior darkness that seems present in all people.  Delivering the deceased Kurtz’s letters to his still grieving fiancée, he meets her as darkness is setting.  He lies about her beloved’s last words, preferring to preserve her feelings than to reveal the truth uttered upon the deathbed.  There are layers of interlaced darkness here and Conrad never gives a definitive statement about what it really is.

We live in dark times.  I suspect that, for someone somewhere, that will always be the case.  The corruption of our government is so blatant and obvious that we seem to have fallen under the shadow that must’ve driven Conrad to pen his novel.  When living in darkness it helps to have a guide who’s been there before.  No matter what evil Kurtz has perpetrated, he’s treated as a god by those he oppresses.  He knows their suggestibility and preys upon it.  Although slavery was no longer (officially) a reality when Conrad wrote, the attitudes—embarrassing in the extreme today—lingered.  Even more embarrassing is the reality that they linger even today.  Not just linger, but assert themselves and then deny that they exist.  This is the heart of darkness, I believe.  We cannot allow others to live in systems that don’t kick money back into our own.  Trade on our terms, with our worldview being the only legitimate one.  Like so many writers, Conrad has been made a prophet by history.  And we all know the horror.

Now You Don’t

Quite some time ago I realized I should read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  What put me off, as usual, was length.  Long books take a real time commitment, but since Black History month is coming up, and we’ve just celebrated Martin Luther King, I planned ahead and read.  A profound book, at several points I felt like a voyeur reading it.  The African-American experience of life is something I always feel uncomfortable approaching.  I’m afraid of appropriation, and I’m afraid of not paying attention.  I grew up not having a sense of racism, but nevertheless am implicated in the whole.  Maybe that was intentional.  As a story Invisible Man is often described as a picaresque, but having an unreliable narrator who was a victim of my own culture was difficult to countenance.  It was hard to know what to think.

We never understand another person’s experience of life.  We sympathize, we empathize, but we can’t really get inside the head of even our best friends.  I can’t help but think we’d all be better off we recognized that race is a social construct, and a potentially evil one at that.  We are all human beings and we should act that way.  But this novel left me wondering if it’s really possible.  Good novels will do that to you.  So I’m sitting here scratching my head and a little bit flummoxed by what I’ve just experienced.  Was it authentic or can I not help but project my own experience as an non-minority upon someone else’s writing?  Even questions like this are socially conditioned.  I too am trapped in my own mind.

You might think that by this time we would have evolved beyond our distrust of those long separated from us by natural barriers.  Homo sapiens are distrustful of strangers, and even the internet hasn’t brought us the understanding we require.  Not yet, anyway.  The background to “race relations” in the United States can’t be separated from slavery and the attitudes it engendered.  On almost every page of Invisible Man its traces can be seen.  That kind of cultural memory, and other cultural memories such as Jews being routinely castigated by Christians, or monotheists being raised to combat polytheism, are deep dividers.  Our cure for these evils is understanding.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was a work of literary fiction.  It rings true, however, and although it represents a world I do not know the fact of its publication invites  those of us outside the tradition to read.  Indeed, doing so is one way of attempting to reach understanding.

Truth, Justice, and

Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Boston University School of Theology long before I did.  We remember him today as a great leader, a man willing to die for what he believed in.  And all these years later we’re still struggling to find some semblance of racial equality.  We can’t seem to admit that race is a social construct and not a scientific category.  Indeed, the only race is the human race.  King saw that, and staked his life on it.  Today we’re ruled by politicians who, when faced with the truth immediately shout “fake news!”  “Liberal!”  They may stop short of using some words not because they don’t want to, but because they could cost them at the polls come November.  America is watching.  I’m sitting here thinking how Martin Luther King died when I was just five.  He’d started something righteous and just.  And millions were out marching in the cold on Saturday to say we still believe in justice. 

I didn’t pick Boston University School of Theology just because King was its most famous alum.  The other day a guy noticed my BU stocking cap and asked if it was “Boston University.”  This wasn’t an educated person, but I’m guessing that most school paraphernalia has to do with sports and the game was on in the background, so the question was logical.  I told him it was Binghamton University, a school with which I also have an intimate connection, one step removed.  He said, “Binghamton!  I saw your cap and thought Baylor?  No.  Must be Boston.”  But ironically he ended up with the right school for me, but the wrong school for what I was wearing.  I did pick BU because I realized that strong academics are nothing without social justice.  Of course, academia wanted nothing to do with that.

Recently I read how Republican resentment towards liberals has very solid roots in racism.  Oh, they will deny it—their “fake news” trigger-finger is very itchy—but the whole package is tied up with anger that an African-American was elected president.  Follow that up with an old, white racist.  How will history look back on this insane era?  I think we already know.  While the privileged are trying to build their own legacies, I ponder an African-American preacher with clear vision as the one we remember today.  I went to Boston University naive and full of hope.  I heard a lot about King when I was there.  I knew something of dreams and how costly they could be.  Today I sit here and cuddle the epithet “liberal” and think how it’s become a swear word for some, while its real meaning of “justice” continues to go unheeded.

Power of Parables

Parables come in all sizes and shapes, horror movie-shaped, some of them.  In my perpetual struggle to catch up, I finally got to see Get Out.  One of the raft of well-made, intelligent horror films that have been released recently, it’s been out long enough that I suspect my spoilers will be well known.  The Armitage family, resident in upstate New York, has been kidnapping and using African-Americans to make up for the perceived weaknesses of their family and friends.  One of their main means of obtaining victims is through their daughter Rose, who brings her boyfriends home for the weekend so they can be hypnotized by her psychiatrist mother and operated on by her neurosurgeon father.  The reveal comes slowly, but the discomfort begins early on.

Released early in the Trump White House tenure, the movie is a study in an intense xenophobia that nestles somewhere between Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives.  It’s inherently uncomfortable watching Chris Washington, the protagonist, being treated as if his very presence requires constant comment in the world of white privilege.  He, of course, had misgivings before ever climbing into Rose’s car, but her convincing display of liberalism was enough to overcome his hesitation.  For me, watching the film made it clear that privilege is something assumed, even when it isn’t had in any explicit way.  The Armitage family and their friends are well-to-do but even if the setting were more mundane the message would still have worked—our culture imposes and reimposes its message of white superiority in subtle ways that the camera captures here.

Quite apart from its nature as a parable, Get Out is a demonstration of the social consciousness of horror.  Its reputation as a debased, low-brow appeal to all that’s unsavory to watch is misplaced at times.  While Get Out is uncomfortable it’s that way for a reason.  Were it not, it would lose its important message.  All privileged people need to be able to see through the eyes of those who are culturally disenfranchised, and although the “us versus them” mentality is problematic it has to be faced honestly and openly.  The very fact that a human construct like race could be used as the basis for a horror film in America raises questions that ought to make all of us squirm.  Setting the story in New York, where prejudice might be supposed not to remain only underscores how deeply its roots have grown.  Horror with a conscience is perhaps as much a vehicle for social change as it is a genre more honest than often supposed.  That’s how parables tend to be.

Mostly Clear

“Chiasm” is a literary technique based on the name of the Greek letter chi, shaped like a latinate X.  The idea is fairly simple and generally resembles a sideways V more often than an actual X.  It goes like this: a poem, or story, begin at a large, or wide premise, narrows down in steps to a center, and then, by corresponding steps, again out toward a larger, or wider resolution.  Another way to think of it is a set of Matryoshka dolls; first you take them apart, and then you put them back together.  David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a chiastic story.  Starting on a cross-ocean voyage at an indeterminate time in the recent past centuries, it moves on to a Briton on the continent in about the turn of the last century, then a mid-twentieth-century American investigative journalist, a late twentieth-century or present-day rogue publisher in Britain, a clone in future Korea, and finally, to a planet of the apes-like Hawaii of the distant future.  Not really finally, though, since after the center of the X, it moves back outward through the nesting stories to bring us back to the beginning.

I’m not going to attempt to retell the story here, so don’t worry—it doesn’t get any more complicated.  There are, however, a couple of remarkable things about the tale.  In the brutish, nasty, post-collapse future that marks the center of the narrative, religion is central.  Some of the Hawaiians have come to believe the protagonist of the nesting story, the clone mentioned above, was a god.  To find her story, however, you’ll need to read the book.  Suffice it to say, that origin myth is part of the overall complex structure.  The second of the remarkable features, and one that makes this book very salient, is that in all the ages the issue of accepting those who are different is central.

In the outside framing story, the initial and terminal points of the chi, one of the characters is a missionary.  He’s trying to “improve” he life of Polynesians by making them into slaves, whereby they benefit from the largess of Christianity.  Quite a bit of the narrative draws its energy from the eventually faltering sense of superiority of the AngloSaxon “race.”  In that sense it’s definitely a parable for our time.  A story that deserves to be read.  Defying easy genre identification, Cloud Atlas is a thought-provoking novel that doesn’t fear religion and its larger implications.  A couple of the nesting stories have exquisite twist endings worthy of the Twilight Zone.  This book will make some demands on your time, but its message makes it a sound investment in a world rapidly heading toward a future that reveals just how troubled our species is.

Xenophobia’s Children

There are consequences, it seems, for not paying attention in school.  I have no way of knowing, of course, but I suspect most of us are taught that basic fairness is the social ideal.  Xenophobia is deeply embedded in the primate psyche, but to those who claim we haven’t evolved, there seems to be no way to convince them that “racial” differences are merely a matter of differing collectives separated by natural borders.  Over time traits favorable to the region predominate, and humans therefore have what seems to be a very wide array of potential appearances.  There should be nothing in all of this that suggests one group is superior to another.  Primate evolution, however, helps to explain but not to excuse.  Xenophobia is something from which we can evolve.

Fear is at the heart of any phobia.  In a society that measures the worth of individuals by their wealth, fear that another will take it is constant.  Perhaps, in a part of our souls we’d rather not acknowledge, we know it’s wrong to have too much while others don’t have enough.  It’s very cold this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  In Manhattan on Saturday I saw many people on the street, those who’d met the wrong end of capitalism.  I’ve seen human beings shivering in Dickensian conditions in the twenty-first century.  I’ve known capable adults who couldn’t find work, even when they’ve tried.  We fear the street person.  We know that, but for slight shifts in capitalism, that could be us.

Xenophobia has come under threat with globalization.  We’ve made travel to remote locations affordable in order to spread capitalism to regions ready to be exploited.  And we see nothing wrong with taking from those who can’t prevent us from doing so.  Then we wonder why people just like us turn out to march in the cold.  Civil rights marches took place half a century ago.  Crowds thronged the nation’s capital seeking basic human treatment.  Fifty years later over a million women and supporters had to show up to make the same point again.  Fair treatment should not be a commodity.  Those who have fear the stranger.  Those who have don’t wish to share.  They claim the name of “Christian” and mock the very tenets upon which that belief system was founded.  It’s cold outside today.  As we huddle inside, we should have time to think.  It is a waste of a national holiday if we don’t at least ponder for a few moments what it is we celebrate.  And the real costs of xenophobia.

Homo Labelmaker

It’s okay to hate the white man. Mitch McConnell has become the icon of what “the white man” really is. Hatred can be just. Even the Good Book says, “I have hated them with a perfect hatred.” I am not a white man. A few months ago I took a community course on racism. The only male participant in the class, as it turned out. The teacher at one point, asked me my race. I answered that I don’t see myself as having a race, nor do I see other people as having races. We are people. I am not white. He is not black. Being “white” seems a choice to me, a mindset. To me, it is a marker of privilege. If you grew up in poverty, you’re only white if you choose to be. We must get beyond our simple labels.

Believe me, I know the counter-arguments. Our shameful history allows no one to forget. As someone “not of color”—who wants to be colorless?—I am automatically privileged. I’m treated differently by others simply because of the way I look. I don’t like that, because I believe in fairness. It’s part of evolution. The point is that since race is a human construct, we should be able to deconstruct it. Privilege thrives on feeling special, better than others. The white man is the GOP, even the female members of the party. The white man is one who gloats that checks and balances can be destroyed so that he always and forevermore will win. The white man is a slaveholder. I choose not to be a white man. I choose to join the entirety of humanity. Personhood over race.

Christianity, ironically, has been dragged into this distorted outlook. It is seen as the white man’s religion. Women, in this view, are explicitly subordinate. While the New Testament says little about race—one of the earliest converts was an Ethiopian eunuch—it was written and lived out in a Jewish milieu. White men like to select verses from the Good Book to take out of context to support their own wishes. It’s very convenient to have God on your side. If we decide to deconstruct this view we have to insist on refusing to be labeled. That’s not to condone the sins of racism past. The white man doesn’t believe in evolution because that makes race random rather than a deliberate act of God at the appropriately named tower of Babel. Besides, the thinking goes, any creature not human is here for exploitation. God, according to the Bible, is so colorless as to be spirit only. To be god-like is to reject labels, for spirit cannot be seen.