Lit’s Precondition: People All the Same

Photo from Steichen's Family of Man

Photo from Steichen’s Family of Man

I’ve just come across an illuminating contrast between literature and war.  Theater director Mary Zimmerman is currently staging a version of the Arabian Nights at Washington’s Arena Stage, and in the program notes she responds to the question, “Are you saying that you believe certain feelings are universal, or perhaps that we share an essential common humanity?” Here’s Zimmerman’s reply:

It is a precondition of war that we view other people as fundamentally different from ourselves; it is a precondition of literature that we view other people as fundamentally the same.  All of my life I’ve found myself in the ancient stories of faraway places, and I’ve always drawn comfort from the feeling “it was ever thus” with all of us: that we will experience violent change and loss; that we look for love and betray it; that we will make errors, both serious and trivial that make us feel embarrassed or ashamed all our lives; that certain things will always be funny and others always sad.  Although this seems utterly self-evident, wartime works towards the erosion of empathy, explicitly delimiting the idea that all men are brothers.

It’s interesting how this notion of “fundamentally the same” has circled around. It received a lot of play in the 1950’s as America, having emerged from a period of comparative isolation (in the 1930’s), found itself processing its close-up encounters with countries like France, Germany, Italy, England, Japan and Korea. Out of this new awareness came photographer Edward Steichen’s popular coffee table book, The Family of Man (introduced by Carl Sandburg), which sought to demonstrate that we all share a common humanity, despite superficial differences. This new perspective was important for the Civil Rights movement as well: “We are black and white together, we shall not be moved.”

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, disenfranchised groups felt that the emphasis on commonality failed to acknowledge and do justice to important cultural distinctions. Many thought that even well-intentioned white liberal men were guilty of an unconscious imperialism, defining everyone else in their own terms.  Family of Man, after all, was not titled Family of Humankind.

The focus therefore shifted to how people were different. How did African Americans differ from European Americans, how did women differ from men, how did the Middle Ages differ from contemporary times, how did Asians differ from Westerners and, for that matter, from each other? Fascinating new insights opened up as we began seeing the world this way. I fell in love with many of the new works I was discovering by women and African Americans and Indians (both from the U.S. and from India) and elsewhere.  Feminism, meanwhile, liberated me from some of the old sterotypes of masculinity. Then again, as a white privileged male I went around feeling besieged much of the time.

I’ve posted on an illustrative personal example about how one of our African students, wearing a tee-shirt with the words, “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand,” set off a heated campus-wide discussion and led to a poem by Lucille Clifton. There was truth in the complaints, but in focusing on white insensitivity, our campus somehow failed to address an important follow-up question: “Can we understand if we try?”

In literary studies, if the left cornered much of the energy in the 1970’s as they discovered authors who had been shut out of the official literary canon, the right struck back in the 1980’s. Trumpeting the virtues of “dead white males,” they viewed multiculturalism as a fad that failed to sufficiently honor timeless works. Some even went so far as to claim that Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize because of politically correctness.

On the defense, liberals realized they no longer could afford to fight amongst themselves. Women fighting for abortion rights, blacks and Hispanics fighting to hold on to social welfare programs, gays fighting for civil rights realized that putting primary emphasis on what set them apart was, politically, a no-win solution. Back in the early 1970’s, I remember hearing black militants saying they preferred a KKK member to a white liberal because at least they knew where the KKK member stood.  That kind of thinking was now an indulgence.

And so here we are, back to looking for commonalities between cultures. I like to think we’ve achieved a fairly healthy balance as a result of all this back and forth. I teach the old stuff and the new stuff, works written by dead white men and works written by living black women. With contemporary works, I can’t always predict which ones speak just to the moment and which ones speak so deeply to a common humanity that they will withstand the test of time. (For the record, I think that Toni Morrison is still going strong and has leapfrogged some writers who were canonized when I was in college, like Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos.) I try to pay attention to whether a new work genuinely opens us up or whether it plays on more evanescent concerns.

A powerful test is to put a work in dialogue with everyday life and see how holds up.  Every day I strive to provide you with a different example.

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  1. Susan
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I love the way you’ve woven these two issues together, Robin. I’ve been of the persuasion that lit speaks to us because we are all, at the core, human and have the same feelings, needs and desires. But it’s also true that the ways we express and/or understand our humanity, the cultures we’ve come from, the experiences we’ve had, how our lives have been framed or interpreted, our metanarratives, so to speak, can be incredibly different.
    I think that one of the values of literature or film is that it can find the commonality as a way of helping bridge the differences. I think you’ve mentioned in the past that you identified with Jane Eyre, or some female character in a novel. On the other hand, reading The Help, made me showed me that even though in some ways we share a collective experience of life, I may have no idea how another person experiences reality given their situation.
    It’s great to have one post that deals with both sides of this coin.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    The Help is a great example, Susan. When I have been blind to someone else’s experience (which has often been the case), I feel liberated when I learn new things. When I learn that I have been guilty of racism or sexism or classism, I find the most powerful thing to do is apologize, figure out the next step, and move on from there. To cite an example, I remember what a revelation it was to me to discover that certain city spaces (say, parking garages and parks at night) are different for women than they are for men–that I was oblivious to this before I was married meant that I had a lot of learning ahead of me. But that’s a far fresher and more open-hearted way to live life than to be defensive when people call you out for your blindness. Literature, by taking one into other genders, classes, races, etc., is a powerful help in this educational process.

  3. Jason
    Posted February 16, 2011 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    Robin, it’s a credit to you and your blog that for a long time I was unable to pin down your politics and guiding reading philosophy. Would that more of us had a similar sense of nuance! Judging from the experiences you’ve cited here and elsewhere, you seem to have survived various academic tea-cup tempests unscathed…and without becoming jaded.

  4. Robin Bates
    Posted February 17, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Jason. I felt torn in those 1980’s culture battles because I thought that old works that I loved were not so much being read as used as clubs against other authors (like Toni Morrison) who I also admired. For combatants on both sides of the conflict it often seemed either/or rather than both/and. Why not Austen and Alice Walker rather than or? One new line of inquiry that has opened up, perhaps as a result of the battles, is “canonicity studies” (so my son in graduate school reports back to me). This looks at how reputations arise in the first place, how works become part of the literary canon. The advantage of such studies is that they place works within the give and take of history as they develop reputations. My concern is that canonicity studies may underestimate the works’ content and look more at what contemporary readers say about them. It’s wonderful to study what, say, Chaucer’s contemporaries said about him, and how many editions came out and how he was revisited by the Renaissance and then Dryden. But focusing on his readers (I do a lot of this myself) doesn’t entirely account for his timeless quality.


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