5 Writers Imagine America: Reflecting Forward, 2016

The Texts of the Course

I’m casting an eye, first on who we were: 9 young women, 6 young men — 15 ambitious first years in all — and me, in a college seminar this past fall, 2015.

Ten beautiful, bright-eyed students, each, brought into my life their stories from Sudan, Canada, Korea, again Korea, China, Poland via Canada, dos Mexicanos, Palestine, and Serbia — that’s 10. NJ, GA, NYC (Manhattan), NYS (upstate), CA made up the rest of the dazzling class, 5 eager and industrious Americans with their own stories to tell.

I’m highly privileged, as you see. This is why I mention it: I’m looking at this too. With this kind of privilege, there’s much responsibility. To start, then, I’ll say that we’ll look at the 5 authors chronologically, following publication dates. At the very least, this places each author in an intellectual history. Contextualization like this will afford us the long view.

Long-range factors are already evident in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s America struggling for meaning in the face of brutal slavery — an initial extreme we can’t escape; the struggle continues today. As does our desire for transcendence, to move beyond who we are and into dreams. I wonder what we hear now if we put Emerson’s American against the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, diverse, boisterous, cosmopolitan America of Adichie, the last of our authors in the seminar?

To begin to answer this question, I used 3 interrelated thoughts from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the first of our 5 writers, to interrogate and, in my way of thinking, to be a sort of anxiety of influence on my teaching: “Society everywhere is a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members…Self-reliance is its aversion…,” and, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of its aversion.”

Emerson’s America is determined by a struggle between large forces, each vying for their preferred position, and an individual’s deep desire for a meaningful relationship with herself and others. Imagine a life defined by society, not you? Imagine a life defined by the State, not you? Visualize a life imagined by anyone but you: that’s Emerson in a nutshell.

Emerson’s voice is arguably the beginning of a long Jeremiad on the imagining of American exceptionalism forged against what perhaps has been our instinct all along to look out, extend ourselves into an imagined horizon, and guard against the unforeseeable. An innate premonition that threats exist. Exceptionalism and humanitarianism are two central struggles of the American mind that sometimes weaken will and determination, self-reliance.

Artistry of mind, awareness, and ingenuity inspired by insight are the fundament of American life. These concepts appear fogged over today — yet artistry, awareness, and ingenuity are the heart and soul of the American personality, our idiom. It’s in the foundation: The Declaration of Independence, The U.S. Constitution, and The Federalist Papers.

“I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me,” says Emerson. “I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim…Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company.”

But Whim, which brings hope, has the potential for destruction too. So we reside in a dichotomy, always bargaining for balance — an American disunion, a perpetual identity crisis.

Listen to Hamilton in the General Introduction to The Federalist Papers:

Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished by the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist change which may hazard a diminution of power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishment; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government.

These differences, which can split a nation, give rise to wonderful ideas; they also lead to struggle, angst, and confusion. Anything can happen; any creature can be born of this. A cost exacted by the quest for freedom.

So after Emerson, and to get closer to answering our question about the breath and complexity of American culture, we went to his extreme opposite: Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 mindbending American Psycho.

Patrick Bateman has morphed Emerson’s self-reliance into hyperindividualism so blinding that it prevents people from recognizing one another; identities get confused and Bateman and friends are completely overrun by a focus on the minutia of business cards, expensive suits, the most popular restaurants, cocaine, salaries, and women as sex objects equally valued for their anonymity, their silence, and hot bodies. Life is thus trivial.

So it becomes devalued and insignificant. Unable to escape his triviality, even to the point of having his identity confused with another’s, Bateman’s psychosis drives him to murder. He becomes a pathological killer; with each murder, perversity and violence increase, as if the previous act was not satisfying enough. When life is trivialized, lust rises to objectionable levels; pleasure is confusing and masochism enters.

Patrick Bateman, the delusional psychopath-killer-narrator that passes for the Wall Street boy next door, at the end of the narrative is exiting Harry’s, wondering Why?, why this horrific story, why me, why am I this terrible being, a violent murderer, and reaching for the door — maybe he’s had enough with himself — runs up against a sign: “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.” He is who he is and he’s here to stay. There’s no running. This is your life. No transcendence in Bateman’s America.

Society’s conspiracy against his manhood controls Bateman’s very being, his state, his conscience. He has no self — except when he slays the innocent, the most defenseless.

“He represents a generation that is still living out its days among us,” says the narrator of Dostoevsky‘s Notes from Underground signaling Patrick Bateman and us, says Ellis.

In Bateman, Emerson’s self-reliance is an extreme form of domination by exclusion, which accents differences, polarizes, and singles out those that will not serve society well and begins a process by which to ostracize them, kill them off. Bateman defines the hopelessness that comes from “perverted ambition,” as Hamilton tells it.

“Life is full of endless possibilities,” says “a girl, a freshman,” to Bateman echoing what she’s heard about the land of opportunity: America is full of endless possibilities. Think: Horatio Alger.

Bateman tries “valiantly not to choke on … beer nuts”. The following winter, “her body was found floating in the Charles River …” (there is more, but we’re in the microaggression era so I dare not add graphic description of her decapitated state — it’s enough to say it).

Bateman’s brutal murders are ways of seeing for him; he feels more alive with each horror. In a world where no one sees him, an anonymous being, violence is a way to materialize, even if in the end he’s still nothing, nobody, forgotten.

Sound familiar?

The inconsequentiality of being is the greatest fear we harbor. The more complex a society the greater the danger of irrelevance, the greater the despair. This is because with complexity comes size and compression, both: the larger the group the more it must be compressed to make any kind of sense, formal and informal; all must line up behind a single, dramatic, and dangerous, story. It’s easy to get lost here and know nothing at all in the end.

In this brutally harsh, hierarchically structured value-forming system, everyone is looking up and grabbing. No one sees, no one notices. No one is looking down. No one is looking to see who falls. It’s all about reaching for the next rung up. There’s your single — and dangerous — story.

“My rages at Harvard,” Bateman tells us, “were less violent than the ones now and it’s useless to hope that my disgust will vanish —there is just no way” (italics in original).

This is not the road to happiness. Yet we are responsible for manufacturing societies where some will go unnoticed, some will be expendable, and many will be inconsequential.

The Emerson that comes to Oscar Wao, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), by Junot Díaz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and our 3rd author, is devastating.

Self-reliance kills, you see: the nihilistic Bateman kills indiscriminately; the naive, different and overweight, the pimply Oscar, hellbent on a journey of self-discovery must be killed off when he is fully realized, at the moment of epiphany. Bateman and Oscar are the dark extremes of American culture.

Oscar Wao resides in yet another extreme held inside American culture writ large: Dominican culture — especially as defined by the male. “Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s alway going on about — he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.”

Oscar is twice removed, marginalized by two cultures; he is on the borderlines of a gray world no one understands. Oscar becomes “the neighborhood parigüayo” (“a corruption of the English neologism ‘party watcher,’” Díaz tells us): “Had none of the Higher Powers of your typical Dominican male, couldn’t have pulled a girl if his life depended on it. Couldn’t play sports for shit, or dominoes, was beyond uncoordinated, threw a ball like a girl.”

But Oscar persists; he continues to try to transcend. He continues, more dramatically, to deny the hold these two worlds — America and the Dominican Republic — have on him. And he reaches a moment of epiphany, a noble moment of understanding. But just when Oscar learns about “the little intimacies that he’d never in his whole life anticipated, like combing her hair or getting her underwear off a line or watching her walk naked to the bathroom or the way she would suddenly sit on his lap and put her face into his neck,” he’s murdered, he dies alone, unknown. What Oscar learns he takes to the grave. The unknown knowing dies — the human tragedy, the inconsequentiality of being morphing from Bateman to Oscar.

Just beyond Oscar’s brief wondrous life, Yunior tells us that in a letter Oscar manages to send before his death, he asks Lola “to watch out for a second package. This contains everything I’ve written on this journey. Everything I think you will need…(It’s the cure to what ails us, he scribbled in the margins. The Cosmo DNA).”

When the second package finally arrives Oscar has discovered who he is; he loves Ybón, who “tastes like Heineken”; and comes to “The beauty! The beauty!” that is the minutia of daily life — not “The horror. The horror,” we’re more apt to hear from Conrad’s modernism and what we are more likely to hear now. In this ecstatic form, Oscar dies; he must be killed off. He is fully realized.

Oscar dies an anonymous hero, an anonymous hybrid struggling to find answers between New Jersey expectations and the Dominican Republic’s. This is not America, rather a slice; it’s a New Jersey specifically on the edges of Neverland, Manhattan, and a Dominican Republic in America’s penumbra. An outcast, not an American, a challenged Dominican and a colonial subject, Oscar, nevertheless, embodies Emerson’s call for a strong embrace of self-reliance. He transcendence and dies in tragic joy — because he is different. Oscar’s America shuns difference.

How does that sound to you?

Ellis and Díaz are telling us that the überclass is oppressive, killing everyone else off — or trying to; the underclass is trying, working hard, sacrificing, even dying, and completely invisible.

In Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster (2007), our 4th narrative, Manny, another everyman from the underclass, is behind the counter of a Red Lobster; in the dining hall picking up scraps and talking to costumers; in the kitchen; cleaning a toilet …

Manny is the invisible person who services our self-involvement, even while his world crumbles around him.

MANNY is written beneath “a garnished lobster,” his name tag. “In his lap, tethered to one belt loop, rests a bristling key ring heavy as a padlock.” Manny has “treadless…work shoes”; he notices an ornament that has fallen from the Christmas tree and broken in the lobby after customers leave. Manny is a company man, fully industrialized. He’s a cog in the system of accountability. And it’s so dull, so easy to perform this role, that he gets high before work to assuage the dreariness of familiarity.

Bateman kills, Oscar reaches beyond his reality, literally and figuratively — both sensing that there is something beyond their present condition. Manny doesn’t sense there is anything beyond who he is, beyond the boundaries easily defined for him by the Darden Corporation. He is a fully realized invisible being confused by desire and unsure of where to locate his cravings.

Manny’s anonymity is harsh — “tethered,” “heavy,” and “padlock(ed).” Yet he dreams, he imagines, and he desires — mainly he desires transcendence; but it’s been banished, only the conspiracy remains.

But Manny seeks purity and virtue, anyway: “In the storm light, the restaurant looks warm and alive and welcoming, a place anyone would want to go. It looks like a painting, and he feels proud, as if this is his work, and in a way it is, except it’s over … lost, gone forever. Is that why he loves it so much?”

Question: Are there those among us that can only love what’s gone? (See: Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle for a good answer.) Can the sensation of loving — love itself — occur in some only with loss? Can this be taught?

If, as Thoreau says, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” if this is so in America, the true condition, then over time can Manny be fooled into believing that love resides in this desperation, that desperation is a way of life without realizing it’s a deception?

Transcendence ceases to exist for Manny — and many like him disgruntled in America. This is where we experience sharp divisions between those that look to Powerball for dreams, like Manny, and those that control Powerball dreams — or the corporation that owns the Red Lobster, Darden Restaurants.

But Ifemelu and Obinze are looking for just that, transcendence, in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013), our 5th and final narrative. Ifemelu and Obinze return us to Emerson, to America writ large: its capacity to enable transcendence while experiencing tumultuous extremes — black/white; education/no education; freedom/hopelessness; loss/love, always acceptance, always, and adaptation of course.

It’s not surprising today in America that a young Nigerian writer returns us to the hopes and failings of self-reliance; it’s not surprising that it’s someone foreign, a stranger who realizes who we are and hands us a mirror. It’s not surprising it’s a woman. It’s not surprising this comes from the storyteller that gave us The Danger of a Single Story.

Americanah is about living on the boundaries; it’s about breaking from the single story, and finding a story of one’s own. Ifemelu and Obinze must trespass the known and accepted, and re-invent themselves, experiencing great pain in the process. “We are just one step away from this life in a slum, all of us who live air-conditioned middle-class lives, she wrote, and wondered if Obinze would agree. The pain of his absence did not decrease with time; it seemed instead to sink in deeper each day, to rouse in her even clearer memories” (italics in original). Transgression may be all that’s left — a way of life.

But “for nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure…the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs. Yet is the discontent of the multitude more formidable than that of the senate and college,” Emerson, here, speaks to Adichie — and to us too, I’m afraid.

Adichie responds through Ifemelu. In a blog post, “Understanding America for the Non-American Black: What Hispanic Means,” Ifemelu writes:

Hispanic means the frequent companions of American blacks in poverty rankings. Hispanic means a slight step above American blacks in the American race ladder, Hispanic means the chocolate-skinned woman from Peru, Hispanic means the indigenous people of Mexico. Hispanic means the biracial-looking folks from the Dominican Republic. Hispanic means the paler folks from Puerto Rico. Hispanic also means the blond, blue-eyed guy from Argentina. All you need to be is Spanish-speaking but not from Spain and voilà, you’re a race called Hispanic.

I’m from Argentina, Hispanic then, but not a blue-eyed guy.

The truth about America comes from elsewhere, Adichie’s Ifemelu is saying; it’s never in the mainstream, what we call “Main Street.” Think of Moby Dick. All of Whitman and Dickinson. These narratives are far from Main Street. Think of Wallace Stevens who helped create “Main Street” but intellectually and spiritually he was elsewhere troubled by what comes between us as we experience each other. “Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame,” writes Stevens (A High -Toned Old Christian Woman).

American history gets created by those on the margins of Main Street, struggling to get “in,” and that eventually hybridize, become something new, something yet unknown. This great effort — to become something other, an act of transcendence — requires deep introspection. Love is found here, the true spirit that binds us all together. Adichie’s major theme, for my money. The story ends with love and a relationship brought back to its natural course.

In the following years, even after she was no longer in touch with him [Obinze], she would sometimes remember his mother’s words — make sure you and Obinze have a plan — and feel comforted.

The mother knows what the future daughter-in-law yet does not: love endures all. The truest transcendence evolves only through love. Sounds simple but it’s the most difficult thing to do, to embrace a love that is enduring, that can enable transcendence because this love requires we embrace vulnerabilities, to look at our differences and accept, then adapt. Very difficult. We shy away from this way of life; it scares us somehow.

“I’ve written this for you,” says Obinze, arriving at Ifemelu’s door seven months after her arrival in Nigeria. “It’s what I would like to know if I were you. Where my mind has been. I’ve written everything…I know we could accept the things we can’t be for each other, and even turn it into the poetic tragedies of our lives. Or we could act. I want to act. I want this to happen..Ifem,” he finally says. “I’m chasing you. I’m going to chase you until you give this a chance.”

Humanity’s songline is love, only love, the most difficult of subjects overtly co-opted by commercialization, things; confused by achievement and production, love becomes the hook-up, the most efficient exchange between two people not wanting intimacy, not wanting to really feel each other — even in the most intimate of moments. Back to Bateman, back to all our other narratives that mean to keep individuals from learning anything deep and meaningful about each other; back to our individual struggle for self-determination.

If society everywhere is a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members, the response is transgression with love, the only way to move towards who we really are. Nothing else works, it appears. This is where I sit after 12 weeks with these texts. I don’t know if this is hopeful. But it’s where I sit nevertheless — and that’s something, I suppose.