Archives for posts with tag: orientalism

Shrewd subalterns rise to the top of the meritocracy by telling us about the lie, and living it large. By being Eddie Said, tall, tan, and terrific in Savile Row tweeds, throwing stones at the Israelis’ wall, stifling Carolyn Heilbrun, and conferring an agency on Jane Austen never imagined by the generations of white sexist professors when Said, the brown one, said The Gentle Author was a tool of British imperialism. The lie, for women of my class, is more easily apprehensible than it is for the men, and if it comes through, it is apprehended in epiphanies about life at the top.

Said’s revolutionary 1978 book, which invented post-colonial and subaltern studies.

The lie is basically that progress is inevitable, and that if you work hard enough, keep all your teeth, speak business English, dress like them in chinos, blue button downs, and Top Siders, you will get a good job. Which will procure a trophy woman and trophy children. You will keep both the good job and the expensive woman and the talented children. This isn’t a lie. It happens. The lie is that if you do everything right, you will feel as if you are in the flow, and capitalist society, if not the god of Protestant money management and the prosperity Gospel, will inevitably make you rich and fill your life with abundance. This works for basketball players the way it does for George W. Bush, the benchmark of whose white privilege, lest you forget, was being handed his presidency on a silver platter by the Supreme Court majority his father had confected. God gives you these things if your grandfather was a Senator and you have the stones to run for president on an anti-Washington platform.

Bush v. Gore, 2000.

Creating and getting into the flow of white privilege is what all of us who want to make a living need to do. Your grandpa needs to be a Senator, and I wish you the best of luck with that. For women or people of color, the ’60s generation who intervened in the flow, or just tried to get good jobs, the apprehension of the lie, it seems to me, came in little doses.

Click, as Jane O’Reilly defined, forty years ago,  the moment of revolutionary insight for feminists. I am looking at the typewriter font and pixelated red margins of the six-ply newspaper copy paper on which the editor at the great metropolitan daily newspaper wrote and posted office memos. Between the inch and a half-wide red stripes, with the white silhouettes of spectral sixes glowing in them, he has typed the schedule of who is working weekends. My name is on the list maybe three times more often than the two white boys who were hired the same time I was.

Click. Jane O’Reilly’s cover story for the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine.

Click. I am in the White House press room, which Nixon built over JFK’s notorious swimming pool. I am feeding quarters into the Coca Cola machine and staring at the framed black and white photographs on the wall opposite. They’re of the White House press corps of bygone days, this one sometime during World War Two. Maybe 60 men in fedoras are sitting on a bleacher in front of the Capitol. Their names are written underneath. I read them all, and think, I haven’t heard of any of these people except Merriman Smith. The great UPI reporter had just committed suicide.

Click. The newshens, women who had become reporters in the ’30s. ’40s. and ’50s, who fought like tigers to edit copy at night or cover Pat Nixon, gave all of us our start in the newspaper business. Literally. One of them took me to the White House for the first time to show me how to cover Pat Nixon. Dorothy McCardle was then in her seventies, and had started out in life covering the Lindbergh baby trial and the explosion of the Hindenberg. I once watched her, like Baryshnikov doing sleight-of-body in The Dybbuk, slip through the Secret Service, police and other protection lines to follow Jackie Kennedy on her private tour of the Kennedy Center on the night of its opening. I went to Dorothy’s dentist for 15 years, until an emergency visit to the periodontist revealed he hadn’t been cleaning my teeth, every four months, properly, for nearly a generation.

Click. Another one of the newshens got me good assignments and a $5,000 raise. And one day, may God forgive me, I raised my eyes from my typewriter, and saw her, across the newsroom, approaching 60, breaking her ass over some other Pat Nixon story, and said, if I stay here another minute, I will turn into that. My brilliant black friend, who finally got the job at the New York Times, looked up from her computer one day at a little grey man in a little grey suit killing himself over some other Pat Nixon story, and said to herself, that’s the famous reporter pundit William Boot. This is all there is.

Nixon resigns, by Harry Benson. They also serve who only stand and wait.

And so, when the laid-off executives and retired moguls and the redundant electricians, all those guys who bought it, start complaining that no one invites them out to dinner any more, that people look through them at cocktail parties, that they feel like their cocks fell off, that all their friends departed once they lost the driver/the access/the money/the juice and that bitch of a gold-digging wife, that they know how the n*****s and the s***s feel when they are turned down for the hundreds of jobs they’re applying for, that the charities they volunteer for offer them work picking up dog shit, that they claim, in their eponymous geezer websites, now to be “making art”, though the jay pegs posted show little evidence of it, despite all those weekends off that my ass worked instead of theirs, or, like Leonard Woolf, the radiant stoic, calculate that over the 90 years of his highly productive life he had, in 200,000 hours of labor, produced nothing of lasting value, you know what I think?

I think click.

That’s all there is.

My BBF and I knew it when we were 30 years old. Grow the fuck up.  My BBF also showed me that a real woman pays her own mortgage, through thick and thin. It will make a man of you.  Writes Woolf,

Looking back at the age of eighty-eight over the fifty-seven years of my political work in England, knowing what I aimed at and the results, meditating on the history of Britain and the world since 1914, I see clearly that I achieved practically nothing. The world today and the history of the human anthill during the last fifty-seven years would be exactly the same as it is if I had played pingpong instead of sitting on committees and writing books and memoranda. I have therefore to make the rather ignominious confession to myself and to anyone who may read this book that I must have in a long life ground through between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of perfectly useless work.
— The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, 158.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf.

Poignant, to me, is the book store sticker on the faded paper cover of this hardback book. It says Savile Book Shop, 3236 P St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20007. The Savile closed in 1978;  I was reading Leonard’s observations about work shortly after the publication of the foruth volume of his biography in 1970, and quoting the old socialist in the newspaper by the early ’70s. Working weekends. And nights. Not the best prescription for a marriage.

So it seems as if there would be no surprises, no damage done, to such a person when I started, thirty-two years later, aged 62, to look for work. Again.

To be continued.

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Like Tiresias, who lived both as a man and a woman, I have lived two ways. First, as a student taught that there was a canon, and that it had no women or people of color in it. There were no Godless Asians, either, preaching that there is no prime mover, since neither women nor people of color nor Godless Asians can read or write. Second, I have lived as a grownup observing from afar the Afro pomo homo — what do they call it? — project of beating the dead white men to death.

I can see the face of Dr. Baizer, as we speak, making eye contact with me, the lone female in the seminar, in 1968, to announce that Jane Austen, the one female of the entire canon, was a minor and miniaturist writer, as she did not write about war. Twenty-five years later Eddie Said said, au contraire, Jane Austen is the very billy club with which British imperialists cold-cocked smart little Palestinian boys like Eddie, being eddimicated at the American School and Victoria College in Cairo ca. 1947-51.

There is a long argument somewhere, in one of the literary journals I used to read — the TLS, the LRB, the NYRB — a long and persuasive discussion about why, for example, Islamic culture failed to produce capitalism, the Protestant reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution — all the anomalous glories of western civ. It was pretty interesting, and as I recall, its rhetorical stasis point was, no Aristotle. No scientific method based on thesis, antithesis, synthesis. At some point, Islamic science and mathematics — which as you will recall, invented the numbers you use and astronomy and medieval medicine — stopped competing with the argumentative Greeks’ notion that things have causes and effects, and the disputatious rhetoric of scientific method could cut these out of the morass of superstition, false witness, false evidence, to produce replicable results. One old genocide scholar, pondering the expulsion from Spain of the Moors and the Jews by Isabella la Catolica in 1492 — the end of the Caliphate all the Islamists are trying to re-establish —  pointedly noted that no academic institution of any accomplishment had been established in Spain since. One wonders if the Islamists’ implicit argument is true, that progressive Islamic culture, like the Spanish, also ended with the Caliphate.

No Aristotle? Don’t seem to have harmed the Chinese none. Chinese medicine, based on chi and no prime mover and no scientific method, is marvelously diagnostic and effective for ailments much more invasive western medicine cannot touch. A friend of mine with some physical problem and a big secret — multiple personality disorder — got up on the gurney of a gifted acupuncturist. The acupuncturist held her hands over my friend, and said, after about three minutes, There’s another energy here. I can’t treat you. But we have somebody who can.

The sadness of the idea that native Americans had not invented the wheel nor had beasts of burden (aside from women); that eyeless-in-Gaza Sphinx feeling I used to get gazing at the empty desert of pre-colonial African literature, never passes. Whether Aristotle gave syphilis to Montezuma or vice versa is something they’re still fighting about, also sadder than bears thinking about too much. I remember encountering, in New York City, at the Museum of African Art, a small mimetic 14th century Ife sculpture of a woman’s face and thinking, but there was a Renaissance in Africa. Where are the documents? Buried in the sand with Ozymandias? Sliced and bogarted by Elgin for the British Museum, or by Andre Malraux from Angkor Wat for auction? There, at least, in Europe, the third world antiquities would have a chance of surviving. As the Cleopatra-era chair at the Cairo Museum, popping pearl inlays before your eyes in the drafty glass case, or the karyatids of the Acropolis, melting in modern Athens’ carbon monoxide, and the beheaded apsaras of Angkor Wat, squeezed by boa-constrictor banyan roots, barely did.

Fourteenth century Ife sculpture: there was a Renaissance in Africa.

http://www.africanart.org/traveling/13/dynasty_and_divinity_ife_art_in_ancient_nigeria

For 20 years, a view of the Khmer Rouge genocide as the rage of illiterates held sway simply because no one had found their meticulous documents, and, oh yes! They were in Khmer. For four centuries, the documents of the Dutch founders of Manhattan lay hidden and untranslated somewhere upstate, much obscuring the libertarian and capitalist legacy which made New York City, for one brief shining moment, ca. Jackson Pollock drip paintings, 1947-Sept. 11, 2001, the capital of the world. This, the idea that Africa’s Canterbury Tales and the Incas’ World According to King Ruang, are buried somewhere in an urn under the shifting desert sands, to be recovered, perhaps only in our dreams, as were the Nag Hammadi scrolls, half of which were burned for firewood, is of course the essential problem with the canon. As with the genocide of the Jews, the People of the Word, by the Nazis, the People of the Meticulous Records, the canon rests on literacy and the preservation of paper.

It also rests on some pretty damn good ideas. That you don’t have to reinvent the wheel in every generation, for example, and the possibility that women and slaves have souls — the latter notion noticeably absent in Islamist and Chinese culture. I am thinking about Seneca, and the accidents of cultural transmission — how and why he got to Shakespeare, and Montaigne, and the Renaissance, and thence to us. According to the intarnets, Seneca wrote in Latin and other Stoics did not. Educated Renaissance Euros like Montaigne, on whose invention of autobiography (pace, St. Augustine) and interiority much of the rise of individual human rights and modernity, and the French language itself, depend, spoke only Latin until he was six years old. He could read Seneca and not others who wrote in Greek. By the same token — of Latin speakers, like Montaigne, translating into European idiom the Roman canon — Shakespeare got his English translation of Seneca in the early 17th century. There is an argument that Shakespeare’s splendid vision of man, to which modernity owes its representative forms of government — What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! — rests firmly in the humanism of the pagan philosophers.
http://www.stoics.com/why_stoics.html

So. While the Afro pomo homos play video games, homeschool their children, and labor to reinvent communitarianism and civil obligation as Rome burns? Let’s you and me go into the back yard.  Cultivate our cabbages. Sit in the sunshine with the undertoads. Then get out and do some voter registration.

Roll on, Seneca. Power to the people.

Seneca the Younger, Nero's tutor.

(c)Jeannette Smyth, 2012-2017, all rights reserved.

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