Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

I would like to examine Lahiri's volume of short stories in the light of an old American idea, a notion which describes a very old American ideal.

In 1911, George Santayana delivered an address before a Berkeley audience entitled, "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy." In that speech, and in many of his writings that followed it, he gently indicted American culture for being a "young country with an old mentality… [but] not simply [that]: it is a country with two mentalities, one a survival of the beliefs and standards of the fathers, the other an expression of the instincts, practice, and discoveries of the younger generations. In all the higher things of the mind—in religion, in literature, in the moral emotions—it is the hereditary spirit that still prevails… The truth is that that one-half of the American mind, that not occupied intensely in practical affairs, has remained, I will not say high-and-dry, but slightly becalmed; it has floated gently in the backwater, while, alongside, in invention and industry and social organization the other half of the mind was leaping down a sort of Niagara Rapids." Elsewhere he described this split as "a curious alternation and irrelevance… as between weekdays and Sabbaths, between American ways and American opinions."

Santayana drew the outlines of the genteel tradition in broad but bold strokes: "The chief fountains of this tradition were Calvinism and transcendentalism. Both were living fountains, but to keep them alive they required, one an agonized conscience, and the other a radical subjective criticism of knowledge. When these rare metaphysical preoccupations disappeared—and the American atmosphere is not favorable to either of them—the two systems ceased to be inwardly understood; they subsisted as sacred mysteries only; and the combination of the two in some transcendental system of the universe (a contradiction in principle) was doubly artificial. Besides, it could hardly be held with a single mind."

Santayana's disdain for this guileless duplicity is, in these quotes, considerably restrained, but the genteel tradition as he saw it, and as many other writers (and particularly literary critics) saw it, was an anchor around the neck of American culture.

Indictments (however gentle) and disdain is definitely not where I'm going with this comparison, but I do not think the disdain is a necessary corollary to the analysis anyway, so with that said, I'll proceed to the comparison itself.

Doubleness is the most common and most universal American experience. For Santayana, it characterizes the dominant New England culture of Longfellow, Emerson, the Atlantic Monthly. He may not have been entirely fair to this tradition (or at least not to Emerson), but his account of the "cool abstract piety" of genteel America resonated with those who felt hemmed in by the dominant culture, and their break with it was largely on the grounds Santayana laid out.

W.E.B DuBois famously described black culture as "gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

The "Immigrant Experience" is likewise characterized almost uniformly by a sense of duality, and its origins are obvious and unsurprising: to experience many and sometimes most moments both in their particularity and in their difference from other particular moments, real or imagined, is to live life partially in parallel with oneself. Every adjustment to a new culture exposes a retention of other ways, other thoughts, other things.

I would suggest, therefore, that insofar as literature, film, or theater about Black Americans or immigrants foregrounds this "two-ness," mainstream white American culture will consume it avidly precisely because it reflects the experience they/we have created for ourselves and in which we continue to live, placidly and rather soporifically. And I would even go so far as to say that, in the past decade's absence of very many "genteel" white American authors (or at any rate very many good upper-middlebrow ones), immigrant narratives—Jhumpa Lahiri, Khalid Hosseini, Julia Álvarez, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, Ha Jin, Chang-Rae Lee, Sandra Cisneros, Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, Michael Chabon's Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—have become a new Genteel Tradition.

What marks these authors—not all of them, but many of them—is an aversion to the types of two-ness, the types of dualisms that produce the sense of the uncanny. For Freud, the uncanny is the realm of doubles asymmetrical by a menacingly few degrees, of parallax, of things familiar but unplaceable.

Rather than the uncanny, their doubling draws on the tension inherent in mimesis. Reproducing in art what appears to our eyes creates a proliferating set of problems, well known to most people who have read more than one book and have perhaps reflected upon them for a moment. The fact that mimesis fails—inevitably—in its ostensible goal—to, as Auerbach has it, "represent reality"—fortifies the foundations of art. Offering a basic set of judgments and appreciations to the reader, mimetic works engage them in stable ways, or at most in unstable ways that occupy mostly permanent positions within a stable system. The uncanny ignores this system and strikes at instability directly—apart from the stabilities which ground mimesis. The depiction/creation of the uncanny is not a form of failed mimesis, and its presence in a work of art ejects the mimetic stabilities from their places as guarantors of the reader's decisions of taste and judgments of quality.

Lahiri's stories lay their juxtapositions before you so gently, prepare their metaphors so meticulously, fashion their character arcs so cleanly that when shocks come (as in the first, beautiful story, "A Temporary Matter") they are absorbed without residue into the events, the pace, and the words that came before. Which is not to say that you turn the page and lose the characters, the plot or the effects of the story, that Lahiri's neatness in storytelling results in an emotionally sterility. Quite the opposite; her stories are alive and stay well with you. Yet their life is a different kind from a work like Melville's Bartleby, say, or Henry James's Aspern Papers, both of which stood (as did most of their authors' work) directly athwart the Genteel Tradition.

This is not a complaint, an accusation that Lahiri or the others I mentioned are a part of a moribund tradition. What may be moribund—and I think quite likely is—is the white culture of consumption that appreciates these books and lauds them with Pulitzers and sales. Santayana's critique was directed at the artistic culture of his time; that was a tactical mistake and was repeated quite often throughout the 20th century. What he should have loaded his guns for was the bigger game—the affluent, languidly moderate consumer culture of well-intentioned white liberals that continuously fed the lukewarm flames of the Genteel Tradition with fame and money. That culture continues apace today, and is just as worthy of critique and disdain.


Pam said...

Awesome post, Andrew.

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