Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Racial difference: the board game

Well, I was wrong. When I announced my turn to the Left three weeks ago, I was confident that never again would unstated views be attributed to me (because the Left only does that to its enemies on the Right).

Now, however, the assistant literary editor of the liberal Catholic weekly America accuses me of saying that, in her dedication to her 1987 novel Beloved, Toni Morrison “purposely, intentionally distorted figures of slavery casualties in order to minimize the significance of the Holocaust” (emphasis in original).

True, I never actually said that. Or, as the assistant literary editor puts it, “Myers never owns this statement.” Perhaps I never “owned” it because, well, I don’t believe it. But no matter. The statement is justifiably attributed to me because I am a “white male academic critiquing the masterwork of an African-American woman,” and apparently then I am without rights to my own explicit views.

What I actually said, in examining her dedication to “Sixty Million and more,” is that “Toni Morrison was demonstrably not interested” in historical accuracy. To arrive there I cited historical studies, contemporaneous with the publication of Beloved, including one that was nearly twenty years old when Morrison came to write the novel, that put the figure between four million (“who lost their lives as a direct result of enslavement”) and twenty-one million (who were “captured in Africa” for the purpose of enslaving them). The figure of “Sixty Million and more,” I held, was a transparently obvious allusion to the six million, the number that has been advanced in Jewish discourse since 1945 of the Holocaust dead. “Sixty Million and more,” then, was not a historical reference but a literary one. Hence my conclusion that “Toni Morrison was demonstrably not interested” in historical accuracy.

But this must not be what I meant to say. True, it is what I intended to say. And as a pretty careful writer who has little trouble speaking bluntly and even harshly when the need arises, I could have said, if I had wanted to, that Toni Morrison “purposely, intentionally distorted figures of slavery casualties in order to minimize the significance of the Holocaust.” But I did not want to say that, because that was not my argument.

Whatever. My actual argument is simply an “intellectual, jargon-y way of avoiding the messy need to call Morrison what he believes she is: a nasty little deceiver.” (In the liberal Catholic weekly America, apparently, the words demonstrably not interested are unfamiliar terms, a little too highbrow for the common reader.) Secretly, in the privacy of my soul, I believe that Morrison is a liar. If I never actually say that, the reason must be that I am craven, perhaps even not much of a man (I won’t “sack up enough to say” it).

Of course, there is another possibility. Perhaps the reason I do not call Morrison a “nasty little deceiver”—I mean, apart from the fact that I don’t actually believe any such thing—is that, as a matter of principle, I do not call names in lieu of advancing arguments. The assistant literary editor of America might have put in the effort to read a little more of my writing on this Commonplace Blog to discover that hard kernel of fact, but so much easier to substitute preconceptions for knowledge.

I have warned that a demand for respect toward racial and ethnic “difference”—the very sort of attitude displayed by our assistant literary editor, who abuses me for wearing “Oblivious White Dude Bifocals”—will reduce all arguments to ad hominem attacks (the very sort she engages in), but the warning cannot be heeded if it is not read. However, what possible reason could there be to read it?

The assistant literary editor knows what she would mean if she criticized the expression “Sixty Million and more.” So, naturally, that must be what I mean. She is careful not to fall into the same cavity of error in discussing Morrison: “I cannot speak to her intentions and to do so would be an act of hubristic fuckery that even my considerable ego couldn’t tolerate.” But to my intentions she can speak with aplomb. Thus I am safely solipsized.

And this is what happens, I am afraid, all too often, when disagreements are turned into rival exhibitions of racial “difference.” Even simple reading becomes precarious, a badly potholed road.

So I calculate that Beloved is overrated because a “search of the MLA Bibliography turns up 647 items in whole or in large part about the novel” (more than on the entire life’s work of Alice Walker), and I quote Yvor Winters on the significance of such a huge pile of scholarship (“when a writer is supported by a sufficient body of such scholarship, a very little philosophical elucidation will suffice to establish him [or her] in the scholarly world as a writer whose greatness is self-evident”); and then, when someone suggests that I am weaving a conspiracy to explain why Morrison’s novel is overrated, I reply: “No conspiracy. To adapt something that Thoreau once said: the head monkey in Cambridge puts on his hat, and all the little monkeys follow suit.” The original questioner understands me: “Scholarly worthiness is a top-down manifestation, and rarely aligns with popular opinion. . . .”

But not the assistant literary editor. She reads the word monkey, and alarms go off. She falls into the tones of a schoolmarm: “ ‘monkey’ is a well-known racial slur for an African-American. Now, when a white male academic is strenuously criticizing an African-American author, you would think he would take care to avoid using the word ‘monkey.’ ” Irrelevant that the white male academic was referring to scholars, who follow the lead of better-known scholars rather than arriving at their own independent opinions. The word monkey must be a racial slur; it must not be anything else; because that is how the assistant literary editor would use the word (not that she, exquisitely sensitive as she is to racial “difference,” would ever use it).

The whole thing is enough to make someone despair, not merely of the literary contributions to America, but of literary disputation altogether. The positions have been staked out in advance, and all that remains is moving the disputants, like plastic board-game pieces, to the assigned squares. That there are few pieces and squares has the advantage of assuring that the game will only take a short while, and that there will be a clear winner and loser. And thus will the time be killed softly, with no cost to anything but the truth.


R/T said...

I have already left a brief note of disappointment on the blog written by the assistant literary editor (i.e., Regina), and I want to take some time to digest her comments before commenting further.

I will tell Regina about this is more detail at her blog, but what bothers me most is the eagerness of some people to attribute words and thoughts to other people without any evidence of the actual existence of those words and thoughts. I do not know what Morrison thinks, and I do not know what you think. I only know what Morrison and you have written. The same limitation applies to Regina's blog: only her words matter--but the words matter very much.

Therefore, the argument--if one exists--must be focused only on what is written. So, I will return to this topic later when I have given Morrison's words, Regina's words, and your words more thought.

danup said...

Remind me to never, you know, libel you, or anything, because that was a basically thorough critical depantsing.