Can a Dream Hold Us Together?


When I was a Fulbright lecturer in 1988 Yugoslavia, an old Melville scholar named Janez Stanonek once said to me, “I don’t understand how America works.” I could, to be sure, have turned the question back on him—how does Yugoslavia work?—and in fact Yugoslavia began falling apart three years later.  He considered himself Slovenian rather than Yugoslav, however, and it’s clear how Slovenia works: a common language, culture, and history hold the people together, even if Slovenia officially became a country only in 1991. The 19th century poet Francis Prešeren is revered because he showed the inhabitants of this tiny region within the Austro-Hungarian empire that their language was capable of great poetry. But what holds America together?

That question has become increasingly pressing in recent years, and it’s one that Salman Rushdie’s masterpiece Midnight’s Children addresses as well. Rushdie, unfortunately, doesn’t offer up many reassuring answers, but at least he helps Americans articulate their dilemma.

In my conversation with Stanonik, I mentioned the Constitution, a legal document, and the American Dream, an aspiration. I didn’t realize until recently, however, that the Constitution is less a set of laws than a set of norms, which are operative only as long as people agree to abide by them. We have a checks and balances system only when the legislative branch is willing to serve as a legitimate check on the executive and when the judiciary operates as an impartial check on both of them. Compromise any of these and the whole begins to crumble.

The American Dream is an even shakier foundation since it has never been a single dream but a crazy quilt of differing and sometimes clashing desires. The same is true of Rushdie’s India. In the chapter “Tick Tock,” the narrator ticks down to the moment when India’s dream of being its own nation will be achieved:

Rumors in the city: “The statue galloped last night!”…”And the stars are unfavorable!”…But despite these signs of ill-omen, the city was poised, with a new myth glinting in the corners of its eyes. August in Bombay: a month of festivals, the month of Krishna’s birthday and Coconut Day; and this year—fourteen hours to go, thirteen, twelve—there was an extra festival on the calendar, a new myth to celebrate, because a nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will—except in a dream we all agreed to dream; it was a mass fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat, and would periodically need the sanctification and renewal which can only be provided by rituals of blood. India, the new myth—India, the new myth—a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.

A little later, narrator Saleem tells us what goes wrong. While the collective dream is one thing, individual dreams are something altogether different. Although theoretically India is a nation that, a la Walt Whitman, embraces multitudes, people continue to think of themselves as Hindu or Muslim or Sikh, as Bengali or Punjabi or Madrasi, as Brahmin or untouchable Rushdie makes this point dramatically by having two children, a Muslim and a Hindu, born at the stroke of midnight when India becomes a country and then switching them. Each is raised in the other’s religion and class so that the child born of a Hindu mother becomes Saleem and the child born of a Muslim mother becomes Shiva. Although they are indistinguishable without labels, the labels determine who they are:

In a kind of collective failure of imagination, we learned that we simply could not think our way out of our pasts…if you had asked my father (even him, despite all that happened!) who his son was, nothing on earth would have induced him to point in the direction of the accordionist’s knock-kneed, unwashed boy.

Another way of putting this is that, despite dreams of national unity, the children are born into time and history:

[A]ll over the new India, the dream we all shared, children were being born who were only partially the offspring of their parents—the children of midnight were also the children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history. It can happen. Especially in a country which is itself a sort of dream.

Although the dream is shattered first by bloody factionalism and then authoritarian dictate, Rushdie says that the seeds of unity never entirely disappear. After all, the same switching that happened at Saleem and Shiva’s birth occurs with the next generation as well: Saleem raises, as his own child, Shiva’s offspring. The situation reminds me of my favorite scene in the 1982 film Gandhi:

Nahari: I’m going to Hell! I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.
Gandhi: Why?
Nahari: Because they killed my son! The Muslims killed my son!
[indicates boy’s height]
Gandhi: I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed and raise him as your own.
[indicates same height]
Gandhi: Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.

Republicans and Democrats are not smashing each other’s children against walls, but stepping out of their silos and acknowledging their common humanity is not a bad place to start.

One other point. Saleem’s observation that “the sanctification and renewal” of the collective fantasy of India “can only be provided by rituals of blood” reminds me of Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier. As one reviewer describes Slotkin’s thesis, “violence is an essential and necessary part of the process through which American society was established and through which its democratic values are defended and enforced.”

In Midnight’s Children we see India thinking of itself as a unified nation when it goes to war with China, and the last time that America truly felt united was following 9-11. But if blood is what it takes, then bloody factionalism and national unity both reduce us to tribalism. For me America starts and ends with a more positive affirmation: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Can we, through “the efforts of a phenomenal collective will,” pull that off? That’s a dream worth devoting one’s life to.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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