Sunday, 21 February 2016

Harper, Maya, and me

This is a post about my growth as a person through encounters with books. I make no claims about how what understanding of American race relations translates into my activities challenging racism, and acknowledge I am still learning.

Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" became my favorite book midway through my teens, dethroning Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" with its resonant message about parenthood, precocious children, and difficult worlds. I read that book in school (it is one of the handful of great American books, with Gatsby and either Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, but not both, that have been allowed onto British school reading lists). I read it dutifully in the right way, as a story about injustice and segregated America, but that was only part of what captivated me. I preferred the story of Scout and Jem and Dill, their growing up, growing apart. I was captivated by Lee's evocative language, her rich complex female characters (to this day Miss Maudie Atkinson tops my list of fictional characters I would like to meet). In truth, I didn't yet have the historical knowledge or the analytical tools to understand all the parts of the story of Tom Robinson, or understand the monumental nature of Calpurnia's decision to take the children to First Purchase. Even back then, when I decided (to show how smart I was) to write an essay on "racism as a theme in To Kill A Mockingbird" i quickly felt ill equipped. My arguments were weak and I knew it. I should have written about " parenting as a theme in to Kill a Mockingbird" instead.
I've revisited that book so many times I can recite it. I have come to relish its depth more and more with every reading. The intelligence of Lee's device (to have an adult Jean Louise tell the story from a child Scout's point of view) allows such flexibility, deftly used. It allows the narrator to know things Scout would not have known. It allows the future to be alluded to. And it also leads to one of the great, and perhaps most questionable ellipsis in litterature. In the key scene where Atticus goes to sit outside Maycomb jail by night to protect Robinson from the lynch mob, at no point does Lee's adult Jean Louise spell out what is happening. We are told that the child Scout doesn't realise until later. But why does the adult Jean Louise hide from stating what is at stake, plainly, and clearly? Is it perhaps because the horror of that truth would make that scene's denouement hard to stomach, and make Atticus's pronouncement the next day sound hollow?
It was my encounter with another great American book that made me see the limits in Lee's novel as a tale of Southern Racism, and that made me see how much of a fiction even that book's limited victories were. While at University I read Maya Angelou's "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings". I do not know if Angelou had to Kill a Mockingbird in mind when she wrote her autobiography, but the parallels are very striking. Against fictional smart, white Scout, we have real smart, black Maya Angelou. Against fictional too good, too perfect Calpurnia, we have the Real Grandmother. So many of the scenes in Caged Bird echo scenes in Mockingbird, but tear down what little Lee left worth saving in white Maycomb.
Perhaps the key scene for me is the one where she describes how, one night, as a lynch mob is rampaging through town, the white sheriff rides up to the Grandmother's store to warn her, and tell her to hide her crippled adult son from them. The grandmother thanks him, and Angelou describes her uncle painfully squeezing himself into the space under a fruit display. Angelou concludes with a searing accusal of the sheriff that struck me forever (I am writing this from memory so forgive any error):
"If I came before God in Heaven and had to say a good word about that man I could not do it. He did nothing to oppose, and in fact supported, the system that made my uncle hide that night"
Through that book, I began to see all that was missing from To Kill a Mockingbird, that made it both a fairy story, and a flawed depiction of the Jim Crow south.
I still love to Kill a Mockingbird. But I am fiercely grateful to Maya Angelou, and all the other black writers who have helped me move past viewing as more than what it is: an exquisite piece of fiction, but no more a definitive portrait of the South than Gone With the Wind.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

When lightning strikes a crowded room

When I met my first boyfriend, lightning struck. We had never met before, but the moment he walked into my friend's kitchen, he was my sole focus that night. It turned out to be mutual. We talked to each other, and for each other all through dinner. We walked to the bus stop for me to catch a bus, he wheeling his bike so he could keep talking to me. It was only the part of my screaming "you're not out yet! To anyone! Do not make any rash decisions!" that stopped me from kissing him that very night.
We texted incessantly, and began a rapid, dramatic courtship. We went on dates, walked through London at night, kissed, fought, made up, spilled our hearts to each other. It was passionate and powerful and joyous and liberating and melodramatic in a way only the first encounter with those feelings can be. I have no regrets about that relationship.
It lasted three months. We broke up (with much elegant drama), saw each other a couple more times, then went off on our separate lives once again. The only fallout from that relationship was a bruised heart, and some lessons about how to treat other people.
I was young, and single, and my boyfriend was a stranger. Lightning struck us, and it was exhilarating. If any of those parameters had been different, the lightning strike would have been at least inconvenient, at most terrifying.
There is a reason Anna Karenina flees the ball after her encounter with Vronsky. There is a reason Olivia's response to meeting Viola/Cesario is "Soft, even so swiftly may one catch the plague?" There is a reason Elinor Dashwood will not speak of her feelings for Edward Farrars, when she does not know (and has reason to doubt) that any good may come of it.
The lightning strikes of love guarantee nothing: not that the lightning strike is reciprocated, not that the fit is good, not that happiness will befall. To use them as the sole guide of behavior is foolishness. To claim they are the pathway to goodness and happiness and should be given special consideration above all other factors is adolescent petulance that results in real pain.
People take risks for love yes. They sometimes must. And they sometimes pay a heavy price. You probably know several people who've moved for love, only to have it not work out. They rebuild their lives in a new place, alluding only rarely to the circumstance that brought them there. We often, if we are friends with people making those choices, have misgivings, fears. "Are you sure? Is this wise?"
Literature and personal history tell us that lightning love is a poor guide of behavior. And yet, when some suggest that, in situations were abuse of power is easy, where all outside factors conspire to suggest that following the guides of Eros's arrow is foolish and dangerous, and enables much worse behavior, how quick we are to demand that love be given primacy.
How many of you would counsel a friend or daughter to run off with someone they'd met only once? How many of you would counsel a married friend to start an affair because of a moment on chemistry, rather than to make quite sure they were never alone with that person again? And yet you would not counsel someone not to start a relationship with their subordinates? And yet you would not tell them that is ill advised? And yet you would not tell them to protect both themselves and the one they claim to love? I call shenanigans.
Edward Farrars, as it turns out, was as enamoured of Elinor as she of him. But he had gotten engaged to Lucy Steele much younger, and to break that engagement (because of the fucked up social mores of Austen's time) would have ruined the young woman. Edward chose to honor his promise to Lucy (until circumstances relieved him of it). Had he not done so, not only would he have ruined Lucy, he would not have been the honorable, kind man that Elinor fell for in the first place.
In contrast, Willoughby, the Villain of sense and sensibility, pursues Elinor's sister Marianne. Here is the point though: Willoughby's love for Marianne is not insincere. But because he is selfish, he does not recognise that pursuing that attraction can only harm Marianne. This is what Elinor cannot forgive in him: that he put his own pleasure ahead of her sister's wellbeing. Austen understood only too well that to be in love with someone, is not the same as to care for them.
If you wish to do well by people, you cannot rely on the lightning strikes of passion to guide you to goodness. Austen knew this, Tolstoi knew this, Shakespeare knew this. Scientists should remember it too