Feb 27 2022

What Dreams May Come After Awakening? Review of Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” (2019)

typewriter

The Elgonyi, natives of the Elgon forests, of central Africa, explained to me that there are two kinds of dreams: the ordinary dream of the little man, and the ‘big vision’ that only the great man has, e.g., the medicine-man or chief. Little dreams are of no account, but if a man has a ‘big dream’ he summons the whole tribe in order to tell it to everybody.

––Carl Jung, “Relations between Ego & Unconscious” (1928)[1]

I don’t know. But I don’t vote anymore. I’m now a radical nonvoter (I think). I feel utterly powerless, ever since the snow storm last year. It was like a revelation, an epiphany, an awakening.

Recently I started reading Colson Whitehead’s novel The Nickel Boys (2019) and, in a particular passage, recognized a shared sense of powerlessness:

It was hard to miss the smile that tugged at Jaimie’s mouth from time to time. Turner wasn’t angry that Jaimie lied to their faces. He admired liars who kept on lying even though their lies were obvious, but there was nothing anyone could do about it. Another proof of one’s powerlessness before other people.[2]

Yes, once upon a time I possessed the capacity to admire politicians who “kept on lying even though their lies were obvious”—James Traficant (1941–2014) for example, whom I gather, was sort of low-rent version of Huey Long (1893–1935).

But now I’m stuck in a bog of disenchantment. And when you’re stuck, you feel mediocre. The Roman historian Livy tells readers that “men of mediocre ability escape envy, it generally aims its shafts at the highest”[3]––after the ice storm of 2021, I feel I am the very measure of a mediocre man.

But even though one is stuck, one is going to have to suck it up. For no one envies a person in pain (especially the pain of powerlessness in politics), for “nothing makes itself more unpopular quite so quickly,” wrote the Roman stoic Seneca, “as a person’s grief.” [4]

In more modern times, Professor Wittgenstein has taught that: “you learned the concept ‘pain’ in learning language”[5]––such as the pain of feeling powerless when being lied to––as with the character of Elwood in The Nickel Boys, as in Texas politics etcetera….

All I know is, I will no longer sacrifice anything upon the altar of admiration for political leadership, particularly at the local level. Those who look to leadership for answers are no different than those who look at pornography for partnership.

But, whether in novels or the minds of mediocre book-bloggers have those who have become disenchanted from such dreams of realpolitik now awakened? Do they now rise and walk in a brand-new life?

*****

One reads in The Nickel Boys that

[Thus said Dr. King]: Throw us in jail, and we will still love you…. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom.

The capacity to suffer. Elwood—all the Nickel boys—existed in the capacity…. Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing…. No, he could not make that leap to love. He understood neither the impulse of the proposition nor the will to execute it.[6]

That passage dimly resembles the Revelation in the second partition of the first volume of Proust when:

… at the hour when there awakened in me that anguish which, later on in life, transfers itself to the passion of love, and may even become its inseparable companion…. since one has doubts of them at the moment when one believes in them.[7]

Then again, the passage by Whitehead reminds me also of one by Professor Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me (2015) when he explains that, “The question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”[8]

But now emerges the question of whether or not waking life and dreaming (or nightmaring) are interchangeable, something that can be exchanged for something else, like at the back-counter at Wal-Mart. For all dreams are ideologies; all ideologies are dreams. As the Czech playwright-politician Václav Havel (1936–2011) says in his essay “The Power of the Powerless”(1978):

Ideology becomes at the same time an increasingly important component of power, a pillar providing it with both excusatory legitimacy and an inner coherence. As this aspect grows in importance, and as it gradually loses touch with reality, it acquires a peculiar but very real strength. It becomes reality itself, albeit a reality altogether self-contained, one that on certain levels (chiefly inside the power structure) may have even greater weight than reality as such. Increasingly, the virtuosity of the ritual becomes more important than the reality hidden behind it.[9]

There are times when I just can’t stop questioning. I find virtue in it as a ritual. Questions like:

  • Is The Nickel Boys more about doubting the possibility of loving one’s harm-makers rather than having become disenchanted by their capabilities?
  • Must readers interpret Whitehead’s character of Elwood to interpret King’s words literally?
  • Or must readers investigate the historical context of the speech to see if King was speaking literally, metaphorically, poetically, spiritually, subculturally, bureaucratically, democratically, and/or theologically?
  • Or does the character within the book possess no need for adjectives in order to possess disbelief in King’s admonition?

After all, who needs specifics when the generality is already within one’s grasp?

Is political dreaming just a form of quackery (just as philosophy is a form of medicine)?[10]

And if Jung was not a quack but someone who studied dreams––the way a political scientist studies various ideologies––can readers accept his realization-as-remedy? Would Carl Jung and Colson Whitehead agree that dreaming is primitive, and waking life (in political as well as physiological ways) a more evolved, more enlightened mode of consciousness? For Jung reminds readers that dreams cannot be unbound from the paleolithic past out of whence they came:

Fantasies always have a highly original and ‘creative’ character. They are like new creations; obviously they derive from the creative activity of the brain and not simply from its mnemonic activity….[11]

The symbol-producing function of our dreams is an attempt to bring our original mind back to consciousness, where it has never been before, and where it has never known it. We got rid of it before understanding it…. Dreams and old primitive things from which the mind freed itself in the course of its evolution: illusions, childish fantasies, archaic thought-forms, primitive instincts.[12]

More to come (maybe).

NOTES

wood

[1] Jung, “Relations between ego and unconscious” (1928) in The Jung Reader, ed. David Tacey, (New York: Routledge, 2012) 126.

[2] Whitehead, The Nickel Boys, (New York: Doubleday, 2019), 129.

[3] Livy, The History of Rome Vol. VI – books xl–xlv, trans. Canon Roberts (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1924) XLV, xxxv, 282.

[4] Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin Classics, 1969), Letter LXIII, p. 116.

[5] Wittgenstein, “Notes for Lectures on ‘Private Experience’ and ‘Sense Data’,” Philosophical Review, 77 (July 1968): 275–320 at 295–96; Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001), Revised Fourth Edition by Hacker and Schulte, (2009) (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009) I. no. 384.

[6] Whitehead, Nickel Boys, 172–73, 195–96.

[7] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) – Vol. I Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way) (1913), trans. C. K. Moncrieff, § “Combray.”

[8] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015)11–12.

[9] Havel, “Moc bezmocných” (“The Power of the Powerless,”) (1978), trans. Paul Wilson, The Power of the Powerless, ed. John Keane, (Armonk, NY: Palach Press, 1985) V, 32.

[10] Livy has some old Roman named Appius Claudius cry out: “Ye gods, they are like quack physicians looking for work, who always want the state to be suffering some affliction that you will call them in to cure. Are you tribunes the champions or the enemies of the plebs?” (The Rise of Rome, Books 1–5, trans. T. J. Luce, (New York: Oxford UP) (V, iii), p. 284).

Marcus Aurelius says that philosophy is supposed to be a medicine, not an entertainment (V, ix); for “philosophy is a modest profession, all simplicity and plain dealing. Never try to seduce me into solemn pretentiousness,” (IX, xxix). See Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, (New York: Penguin, 1962).

[11] Jung, “The role of the unconscious” (1918), The Jung Reader 66.

[12] Jung, “Healing the split” (1961), The Jung Reader 359.


Jul 20 2018

The Stress of Balancing Time to Read Versus Time to Write

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The Stress of Balancing Time to Read Versus Time to Write

For about the past month, I’ve been lagging on blogging. Part of it is trying to find a better balance of time spent reading versus time spent writing (things that may be blog-worthy or more for outside publications).

Prepping (in terms of reading literature) for a trip to Germany this winter is also part of the mix.

In other words, I’m trying to find a balance between:

  • Reading general stuff: daily news, blogs, online magazines, etc. on random topics I may be interested in (publishing, politics, etc.),
  • Reading specific stuff: with regard to whatever the specific writing project at hand is,
  • Writing for this Bookbread blog,
  • Writing for publications to “get my work out there,”
  • Writing for long-term book projects.

I’d been having some worries (though not anxiety proper) about all of the above, but in the last two weeks, I see that two very successful writers whom I follow closely are dealing with (somewhat) similar issues.

See, for example, Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities at Baylor University, and his recent thoughts on the stresses of writing: first here, then follow up here and here.

Now today comes word that Ta-Nehisi Coates is leaving The Atlantic to reflect and regroup.

These guys can basically write about whatever topic they want and find a way to get it published. Sounds like a dreamy position for those of us trying to make a name for ourselves as writers–yet, for different, complex reasons–they are both struggling to satisfy themselves without leaving their readers hanging out to dry.

So I say: Godspeed ye writerly gentlemen, and let your days of scribbling be merry.

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Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 05: Nicole Cuffy’s “Steal Away”

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Midwest Mod Squad no. 05: Nicole Cuffy’s “Steal Away”

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 04 here)

Nicole Cuffy is a New York based writer with a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the New School. Her story “Steal Away” takes place in the early twentieth-century sharecropping South.

If the focus of the essence of Arp’s story “Gormley” is on an individual at an individual moment, one might say the essence of Nicole Cuffy’s story “Steal Away”[1] is much wider in scope. Instead of the individual, the essence of “Steal Away” focuses on things like political economy and multiple individuals, family dynamics and cross-cultural relations between whites and blacks, as well as between Southerners and Northerners, as we see below:

The North was a different country, one that would demand Irving’s assimilation. The North would ruin him for the South, so that on the rare occasion Irving made it down to visit his parents—and they would only very rarely get to see him, their son, their only child—he’d be a stranger, an outsider….

To hold your children down to keep them near, to hold them down because they needed a good measure of get down in them to survive, was slavery. But to send her only baby upriver knowing she’d hardly ever see him again was also slavery.[2]

Compare this to a passage from Faulkner. Compare how both Cuffy and Faulkner both use the words assimilation and slavery:

What he [Houston] did not comprehend was that until now he had not known what true slavery was—that single constant despotic undeviating will of the enslaved not only for possession, complete assimilation, but to coerce and reshape the enslaver into the seemliness of his victimization.[3]

But now to the political economy and cross-cultural relations in “Steal Away,” for that is the essence of Cuffy’s story:

And Lysee [the landlord], harangued as Reggie said he looked, must be making a profit somewhere. He must be, or else he wouldn’t let their debt go, a debt built on joint notes, on poor crops, on overpriced fertilizer and seed, on seventeen percent interest rates, on crooked mortgages. It fired Hester up. She’d counted Lysee as a good one—never spoke an impolite word to any of them, never forced them to sign anything they couldn’t read, never tried to cut in on them on how to live their lives outside their work. Yes, he overcharged for supplies in his store, set up interest rates on their advances and rations money that kept them in debt, mortgaged their animals and wagons so they couldn’t sell them, but Hester had never held any of that against him. That was just how business was done in this country.[4]

It’s as if Cuffy’s narrator is saying Hester was fine with the landlord Lysee stealing from them here in there––if the reader interprets stealing to mean skimming off the top, and fine to mean that such skimming was to be expected in that particular time and place.

But now the unexpected intrudes into Hester’s life: Lysee says the banks have stolen the land out from under him (even though the loans he took out were likely legitimate). Because Lysee has lost the land, he expects the banks to replace Hester and her people with tractors and other advances in agro-technology. In the meantime, Lysee will confiscate their cattle and chickens, constituting a new form of plunder for the sharecroppers.[5]

So first Hester’s home and food supplies are taken from her and her family, then, while they’re consoling themselves by singing some blues to one another,[6] they get interrupted by the arrival of a neighboring wealthy planter, Mr. Simon Russell and an out-of-towner named Mr. Ashbury.[7] Hester’s family and friends are then asked to perform their music for the whites instead of for themselves. Their music––that is, their art, their spirit––is appropriated under the guise of it being appreciated.

And the white men’s appetite for that appropriation is insatiable. They ask for one song after another. But when Russell and Ashbury ask for a blues song, they are denied by Hester’s people, with the excuse given that it’s inappropriate to sing blues on Sunday.[8] Yet that denial also indicates that the blues they were singing before whitey arrived were something precious, sacrosanct. Despite having many things stolen from them, over the years and at that moment, Hester and her folk will keep certain treasures to themselves. They will not submit.

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 6 here.)

NOTES

wood

[1] Nicole Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, selected by Roxane Gay, eds. Kim Winterheimer and Sadye Teiser, (Bend, OR: The Masters Review, 2017) 171–86.

[2] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 177–78.

[3] William Faulkner, The Hamlet, (New York: Random House, 1940) III, ii, 1, p. 210.

[4] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 180.

[5] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 179–80. On the use of the word “plunder,” see Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015) 9, 11–12, 20, 119.

[6] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 181.

[7] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 181–82.

[8] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 184–85.


Sep 8 2017

The Rhetoric of Data in the Writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Rhetoric of Data in the Writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates

I don’t have much to disagree with after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest piece for the October 2017 issue of The Atlantic, which is an excerpt from his next book. The excerpt is titled: “The First White President: the foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.”

I do think Coates’ rhetorical framing of the voting statistics he cites is quite misleading, but I’m will to grant that Coates’s misleadership as a writer in this particular case was unintentional.

When Coates quotes the data-crunchers at Edison Research–

 Trump’s white support was not determined by income. According to Edison Research, Trump won whites making less than $50,000 by 20 points, whites making $50,000 to $99,999 by 28 points, and whites making $100,000 or more by 14 points. This shows that Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker. So when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class. Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent. Hillary Clinton’s did, in states as disparate as Florida, Utah, Indiana, and Kentucky. From the beer track to the wine track, from soccer moms to nascardads, Trump’s performance among whites was dominant.

–I must assume all the above numbers are accurate. But so are other numbers and contexts: like “Voter turnout at 20-year low in 2016” as CNN’s Gregory Wallace reported at the end of last November.  Only “about 55% of voting age citizens cast ballots this year.”

So after all of the rhetoric and emotion and hard number-crunching logic behind the citations Coates gives, he has yet to consider the 45% of American voters who abstained from voting for anybody for any reason.

When Coates writes “Trump’s performance among whites was dominant,” that’s was only among  those who bothered to leave their house. Nearly half stayed home, no matter their creed or color.

Not to mention that data by the American National Election Studies “suggest that about 8.4 million 2012 Obama voters backed Trump in 2016 and 2.5 million Romney voters supported Clinton,” for whom Coates (at least in the excerpt in The Atlantic) says nothing of these voters who switched from 2012 to 2016.


Jul 14 2017

A Future Without Sports

writing is its own sport

A Future Without Sports:

Or, The Current Absence of Reference to Sports
When Debating the Future of Our Country

I recall:

But it is the frequent error of those men (otherwise very commendable for their labours) to make excursions beyond their talent and their office, by pretending to point out the beauties and the faults; which is no part of their trade, which they always fail in, which the world never expected from them, nor gave them any thanks for endeavouring at.

––Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)[1]

Nonetheless, I read (and reread) two books and one article:

These two books, both alike in dignity, in fair view of what this reader has seen, deserve the following analysis:

  • Dreher writes to his own generation and, it seems, his elders.
  • Coates writes to his own generation as well as to his son, and, it seems, his son’s generation.
  • Dreher is adamantly orthodox in his Christianity.
  • Coates is adamantly atheist.
  • Dreher believes the United States of the Future (and much of it Today) will not protect the body of Christ (i.e. the Church).
  • Coates believes the United States of the Future (and much of it Today) will not protect the bodies of its citizens who happen to be designated “black,” (i.e. their literal, physical bodies).

Because I overdosed on sports as a child, and remain in rehab as an adult, perhaps I have “a strange Effect of narrow principles and short views,”[2]–for after reading these two authors it occurred to me that their books contain very little about sports other than:

  • Dreher’s book does contain a hunting episode, told more elaborately in his previous book).
  • Coates’ book does contain one reference to an athlete, Jackie Robinson.

So one can naturally conclude:

  • In the mind of Coates, sports will not protect the physical bodies of black Americans from discrimination.
  • In the mind of Dreher, sports will not protect the body of Christ in America from discrimination.

When they see the world around them and render their particular points of view into words, sports speak neither to Dreher nor to Coates as either a cultural affirmation that the authors can participate in, or have their kids participate in, or merely to watch as entertainment. Sports are not a part of the cultural assessments of these books. They are not relevant to the points Coates and Dreher want to make.

“Fear and hope are the two greatest natural motives of all men’s actions.”

––Jonathan Swift[3]

NOTES

wood

[1] Swift, A Tale of a Tub. 1704. “An Apology For the Book.”

[2] Swift, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver. 1726. II, vii.

[3] Swift, “The Testimony of Conscience [a Sermon].” 1714.


Jun 13 2017

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (III of III)

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (III of III)

III. CONVEX

So the literal thesis of the book is Coates (who is six years older than me) warning his 15-year-old son to cherish his physical body. But who else does Coates address in his book besides his son and self-conscious? As a child of the 1990s I don’t feel he was addressing someone like me who:

  • Recalls in 1991 riding in the van with my family past Luby’s in Killeen the day of the massacre heading to the nearby mall to buy my brother a birthday present;
  • grew up in central Texas and one Saturday afternoon in 1993 turned on the TV to learn about the first shots fired in what became known as the Waco disaster at Mount Carmel;
  • heard and saw in 1995 the horror of the Oklahoma City bombing as a response to Waco;
  • amid all of these were things heard and read various school-shootings from the 90s, particularly the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting at Craighead County, Arkansas and the 1998 Thurston High School shooting at Springfield, Oregon so that:
  • when, by the time I was 15 and one day heard on television in its “media language” [1] about the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, such language and the incidents they described had become routine, jejune, unremarkable.

All of these episodes of violence were committed by Americans who were not labeled black by our country’s media, and I mention this only to show that someone from a very different background than Mr. Coates can grow up well-aware of irrational white violence. Coates also mentions an episode where, as a kid he had a pistol pointed at him by another kid, while I had a rifle pointed at me by a peer when I was college-age––an experience that still stings when recalled.

As a reader I cannot blame a writer older or younger than me for not being a part of my own generation, so when I point out that Coates mentions shootings of the innocent by police to his son,[2] but nothing of school shootings, I cannot fault him for the omission. But out of my own curiosity, I seek to understand his silence, for teaching occurs only in silence.[3] I am curious because this particular silence seems a little strange when in the twenty-first century U.S., a classmate can destroy her peer’s body just as quickly as a cop.

But perhaps I’m being too specific. Perhaps I need to zoom out and inspect the broader picture. Here I find Coates’ overall critique is against systems, bureaucracies, and institutions, not individuals, such as the person who threatened him with a firearm.[4] In this sense he reminds me of Václav Havel.[5] Yet a school shooting is a specific kind of shooting, and all shootings (whether by cops or by classmates) damage human flesh, which is the criterion Coates abides by to warn his son. So maybe it doesn’t matter much that he doesn’t mention school shootings.

And Coates does (quite rightly) ridicule grade schools for their institutionalizing.[6] This is where my reading and dreaming have led me to compare him to Thoreau:

It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.[7]

(go back to PART II of III)

(go back to PART I of III)

NOTES

[1] Coates: “We live in a “goal-oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything,” (Between the World and Me 12).

[2] Coates, Between the World and Me 9.

[3] Quoting Gershom Scholem: “Teaching is transmitted in silence—not by silence…. Where teaching breaks silence, its relation to life becomes dialectical. The outward history of teaching is based upon this fact.” (Weidner, Daniel. “Reading Gershom Scholem.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 96. No. 2. (Spring 2006) at 208–09.)

[4] Coates, Between the World and Me 18, 78.

[5] As Havel puts it: “Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them.” (“Moc bezmocných.” (“The Power of the Powerless”) October 1978. Translated by Paul Wilson. § IV.)

Compare also some passages from Don Delillo’s novel Libra. NY: Viking. 1988:

I’ll tell you what it means, these orbiting sensors that can hear us in our beds. It means the end of loyalty. The more complex the systems [in a novel], the less conviction in people [who read it]. Conviction will be drained out of us. Devices will drain us, make us vague and pliant…. (p. 77) The Agency is always willing to consider a man in a new light. This is the nature of the business. There are shadows, there are new lights. The deeper the ambiguity, the more we believe, the more we trust, the more we band together. (p. 259)

[6] Coates, Between the World and Me 34.

[7] Thoreau, Walden, “I. On Economy.”


Jun 13 2017

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (II of III)

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (II of III)

II. CONTENT

What is Between the World and Me about? It’s about how, in a bleak, blunt, literal sense Coates treasures the “black body” and urges his son to do the same. He says he learned this lesson from reading, among the many authors he names, (the pre-Hajj?) Malcom X.[1] According to Coates’ interpretation of Malcom, the meaning of life for black people in America is not survival of the fittest but simply survival. The aim of life for Coates is to preserve and protect one’s life, nothing more.

Throughout his book Coates repeatedly mentions, ridicules, and resents “the Dream,” a phrase that functions as a rhetorical device, referring both to Dr. King’s “Dream” speech and the general mythology of the American Dream. For Coates, to mythologize is to dream. To have hope in the face of counterevidence is to dream. [2] Dreaming is but a mental illness that leads to death. Waking life means mental health. These are the lessons he asks his son to learn.

I agree with his use of “the Dream” as a rhetorical device. To me mythology is also a form of dreaming. So is reading, for we are pseudo-conscious while we read and dream (as we learn in the first paragraph of Proust). All I do when I read is try to compare the things that stand out on the page at hand to things that have stood out on previous pages of previously-read books.

So in my reading and in my dreaming, I find the focus on the body as articulated by Coates seems to agree with Martin Buber’s call for humanity to “tend with holy care the holy treasury of our actuality.” [3] It might seem strange to compare (the nearly agnostic?) Buber to the adamantly atheist Coates. Buber has been accused of not regarding the Shoah with enough diligence, while Coates is almost exclusively focused on the consequences of American slavery.[4] But according to my dreams, as writers, both of them are engaged in philosophic anthropology—both strive to obtain a rigorous understanding of human culture. On the other hand Buber, who once declared “nothing can doom man but the belief in doom,” [5] might not have agreed with Coates’ fatalism that while the mind may dream the body can only die.[6]

(go to PART III of III)

(go back to PART I of III)

NOTES

[1] From Coates:

What did I mean, specifically, by the loss of my body? And if every black body was precious, a one of one, if Malcolm was correct and you must preserve your life, how could I see these precious lives as simply a collective mass, as the amorphous residue of plunder? (Between the World and Me. NY: Spiegel & Grau. 2015. p. 49.)

[2] In contrast to Cornel West who holds: “I am a prisoner of hope. I can look beyond the evidence and create new evidence. I can make leaps of faith to try to energize and galvanize each and every one.” (“A Grand Tradition of Struggle.” The English Journal. (July 2000.) 39–44 at 44.)

[3] Buber, Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) 1923. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. pp.136–37.

[4] Rubenstein, Richard L. “Martin Buber and the Holocaust: Some Reconsiderations.” New English Review. November 2012. An earlier version of this essay was presented in German at the Buber Centenary Conference in West Germany, 1978, chaired by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Walter Scheel. An earlier English version was published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1979.

[5] Buber, I and Thou. 107.

[6] As Coates writes:

What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself. (Between the World and Me 11–12.)


Jun 13 2017

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (I of III)

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (I of III)

I. CONTEXT

Some newer books I’ve recently read and reread include Ta-Nehisi Coates,’ Between the World and Me (2015), Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015), Michael Morton’s Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace (2014), and Mayra Hornbacher’s Madness: a Bipolar Life (2008).

In a certain sense they’re all coming-of-age books whose stories are not told in the traditional sequence that begins with childhood, follows into adolescence, then adulthood. Rather these authors narrate their struggles to adapt to new modes of behavior as they find themselves evolving from young adults into middle-aged ones. How so?

Coates, finding himself in the adult role of parenting a teenager, struggles to impart wisdom to his son; Dreher strives to reconcile with his father and the world view of his home town after a lifelong rift from both; Morton fights to survive after finding himself in prison wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife, while Hornbacher attempts to understand her battles with mental illness and all the instability it brings with it.

But of the four writers, I come back to Coates because, even though I’ve been a long time reader of his work, his book, after an initial reading, left me the most perplexed. Part of my confusion was unexpectedly encountering a text of such brevity and (seeming) simplicity. In my blurry memory, his “The Case for Reparations” article for the Atlantic (June 2014), which gained him national and international attention, seemed a bit longer than the 150 page chapbook published by Spiegel & Grau in 2015.

(go to Part II of III)


Jun 21 2016

Valleys & Mountains: from Nixon, Goethe, Machiavelli, & Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Valleys & Mountains: from Nixon, Goethe, Machiavelli, & Ta-Nehisi Coates

Machiavelli once penned a maxim about adjusting one’s point of view when trying to gain the understanding of a situation:

In the same way that landscape painters station themselves in the valleys in order to draw mountains or high ground, and ascend an eminence in order to get a good view of the plains, so it is necessary to be a prince to know thoroughly the nature of the people, and one of the populace to know the nature of princes.[1]

Compare Goethe:

Everything massive makes a peculiar impression, as being both sublime and comprehensible, and in going round such objects I drew as it were an unsurveyable summa summarum [sum of all sums] of my whole residence. [2]

Compare Richard Nixon’s “Farewell Address,” August 9, 1974:

We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as T.R. said, that the light had left his life forever. Not true.

It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you highest mountain.

Compare Ta-Nehisi Coates:

And there it is—the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.[3]

NOTES

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[1] Machiavelli, Il Principe. (The Prince.) “Dedication.” The line–“it is necessary to be a prince to know thoroughly the nature of the people, and one of the populace to know the nature of princes“–is particularly relevant when considering Gramsci’s great question:

One may therefore suppose that Machiavelli had in mind “those who are not in the know”, and that it was they whom he intended to educate politically. This was no negative political education—of tyrant-haters—as Foscolo seems to have understood it; but a positive education—of those who have to recognize certain means as necessary, even if they are the means of tyrants, because they desire certain ends. Anyone born into the traditional governing stratum acquires almost automatically the characteristics of the political realist, as a result of the entire educational complex which he absorbs from his family milieu, in which dynastic or patrimonial interests predominate. Who therefore is “not in the know”?

(Gramsci, Antonio. Quaderni del carcere. 1929–1935. (Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci.) Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. NY: International Publishers. 1971. “The Modern Prince” 135)

[2] Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Italienische Reise. 1816–17. From Goethe’s Travels in Italy: Together with his Second Residence in Rome and Fragments on Italy. Translated by A. J. W. Morrison and Charles Nisbet. London, UK: G. Bell and Sons. 1892.  “Rome, April 14, 1788” 546.

[3] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. NY: Spiegel & Grau. 2015. p. 105 citing Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage. Cambridge UP. 2008.