Monday, October 23, 2017
Strands of cultural DNA
I didn't do any significant, meaningful work for a week after Donald Trump was elected president. In the months following his inauguration, I became a news junkie, watching CBC news channel with my breakfast and my lunch. Then dear Twig died, and I began spending my time much more fruitfully, out with the sparrows, chickadees, and nuthatches who came to my feeder and who learned I was no threat. I haven't done that much since Tuck and Lyra arrived; instead I've found myself reading back issues of literary magazines over breakfast and lunch. The New York Times daily briefing keeps me up on the American stories I might be curious about, and I catch the Canadian stories in The Globe and Mail. There are two take-aways from this shift. One is simply about habits, about how we can fall into them unthinkingly and maybe need some event--though preferably not the death of a lovely old cat--to prompt us to query them.
The second comes, naturally, with two quotations. Though I no longer have my copy of Alice Walker's The Colour Purple, I well remember a conversation between Celie and Shug in which one of them complains about how hard it is to get men out of our minds: they're even on our boxes of grits. I only need to walk to the bookshelves in the next room for me to cite two similar passages in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, one where Woolf's narrator draws the picture of the angry and unattractive Professor X who is angry in part because he is unattractive. Later in that same chapter, Woolf's narrator (I make this pedantic distinction because I believe the voice we hear is not exclusively Woolf's) goes to take tea after her hard work in the British Museum, and while she is waiting for her meal to come glances over the newspaper: "The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy. Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor. His was the power and the money and the influence....With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything. Yet he was angry....Is anger, I wondered, somehow, the familiar, the attendant sprite on power?"
I find it interesting that Woolf sees how angry and unhappy the powerful men are. Have you ever seen Donald Trump smile? Or perhaps I should be more precise and note that when he does smile it's what psychologists identify as a "chimp smile." That facial expression isn't about joy or happiness, it's about power, about having more power than the individual or institution being smiled at. (Come to think of it, I've never seen Melania Trump smile either.) There simply isn't enough money or power to make Donald Trump smile. Do you remember early on when he complained about how the framers of the Constitution cheated him? If he's not all-powerful, it's not fair.
For Mother's Day this year, Veronica bought me the three-volume boxed set of Lord of the Rings, which I began reading in late summer. The family copy--which she has claimed in any event--is falling apart. I have read Lord of the Rings out loud at least twice, but I've never simply read it to myself--which was a very different reading experience. Reading it out loud, I just keep moving forward, and I foolishly gave the various characters voices, so I had to concentrate on being in character. (I'm quite proud of my Treebeard voice, which is very like the one in the film. I've also borrowed his mantra often, partly because it's got musical vowels and consonants: "Now don't be hasty.") But this reading was different for yet another reason: it was impossible not to think about Donald Trump when I read about Saruman or Sauron. Prophetically, Tolkien's villains are also destroyers of nature--which is not only one of Trump's qualities but one which pervades Neo-Liberalism. 'Nature? No--forget about nature. You've got to get product on shelves and stocks into the market. Nature is a figment of your imagination--or at least something you don't need to worry about.'
But Tolkien was even more prophetic about the way a desire for naked power distorts the men who relentlessly seek it. Reading LOTR in Trumptime is a different experience.
Except that wise old Tolkien infuses the novel with characters who critique the values of Sauron and Saruman at every turn. I still remember fruitlessly trying to convince my mother to give herself treats and pleasures occasionally because "pleasure is moral." This idea was simply not part of the ideal of self-sacrificing womanhood prevalent in the fifties. But it seems to me that people who laugh joyfully at children playing and watch sparrows, people who make bread and who take a few moments to eat a warm piece and stare out the window to considered how it is with the world and with themselves, people who have fruitful conversations with members of their book club or who watch birds are good people. My useless example--useless only because my mother had never heard of Lord of the Rings much less Hobbits--is of course Hobbits. Why would a pair of Hobbits be the only ones who could return the ring to Mount Doom? Because they have their priorities straight: friendship, elevenses, pipeweed at the top. Frodo and Sam are particularly susceptible to beauty and nature. Sam, when he is tempted to take over Frodo's quest just after they have entered Mordor, rather than try to rescue his "master," realizes that though he'd love to be in an Elvish song sung by Hobbits to come, he really only wants his bit of garden and the hands with which to work it.
This reading I was struck by a motif that recurred in the chapters on the Fellowship's stay in Lorien. Haldir, the Fellowship's guide into Lorien points out that they can see "Dol Guldur, where long the hidden Enemy has his dwelling. We fear that now it is inhabited again, and with power sevenfold. A black cloud lies often over it of late. In this high place you may see the two powers that are opposed one to another; and ever they strive now in thought, but whereas the light perceives the very heart of the darkness, its own secret light has not been discovered. Not yet." Similarly, when Frodo looks in Galadriel's mirror and sees the eye of Sauron, which is searching him out, Galadriel comforts him somewhat by observing that "I say to you, Frodo, that even as I speak to you, I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves. And he gropes ever to see me and my thought. But still the door is closed!" The good, the wise, the kind see the evil in their world, whereas the evil doesn't see the forces for the good. Yes, yes, I know that Trump complains about everyone who criticizes him. But do you really think he sees them? I don't think narcissists see anyone but themselves. I was going to write "stupid narcissists," but that seemed redundant. I've never met a really smart narcissist.
Tolkien's elves have given us good advice for living through greedy, intolerant, and self-aggrandizing periods of our history. It is even more important now that we keep on doing what we are doing: being kind to one another, making beautiful things like the cloaks Galadriel and her ladies weave for the Fellowship, taking time to reflect, considering the lives of those whom society has marginalized, remembering to answer generosity with gratitude, using our imaginations as a guide to beginning to understand the lives of others, being curious rather than judgmental. I could say this is especially important for Americans, but I don't think Canada is free of racism and sexism, given last January's murder of Muslims at prayer, the plight of missing and murdered aboriginal women and their families, the new Quebec law that prevents women who wear a niqab or burqa from receiving public services like mass transit or to work in public institutions, or the rise of Alt-Right groups in Canada. On some days, I think that Steven Pinker has failed me, but I know that his data is accurate. Maybe our intolerance for intolerance is a good thing.
Each of us carries important strands of our culture's DNA and expresses it in our actions and our values. This is the element of ourselves that the power-hungry can't and don't see. Our every act--from a smile at a stranger to a hug given a struggling friend, from the books we buy to the concerts we attend--is an expression of both the values our culture has encouraged in us as well as of the thoughtful, considered choices we have made about the way we want to be in the world and the world we want to live in. That cultural DNA morphs through time, undergoing evolutions encouraged by both the world outside us and our relationship with that world. Pinker, for example, notes that one reason the world has become less violent is that feminist values have begun to have an impact on how we think about....power and its attendant violence--whether that is manifested in bullying or in combat. Sometimes we let ourselves go with the flow and suddenly find ourselves on the edges of social movements that are anything but social. But it's everyone's job right now to protect that strand of cultural DNA that she or he carries, and to think clearly and carefully about any evolutions the current zeitgeist might encourage in us. It's what we protect from the blindness of power.
at 4:39 PM
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