• October 31, 2014

No Self-Mockery, Please, We're American

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Teaching the Telenovela

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Henry James and Jefferson understood nuance and self-doubt. But most Americans? Well, not so much.

Europeans are fine, while Americans are good. This, at least, would seem to be the opinion of Henry James, who knew both civilizations from the inside and never ceased to compare them. Europe for James was the home of style, form, evil, civility, enjoyment, corruption, surface, experience, artifice, and exploitation. America was the land of innocence, substance, earnestness, integrity, barrenness, nature, monotony, and morality. The European self is diverse, fuzzy at the edges, saturated in history and culture; the American self is raw, solid and unified, and lives in an eternal present.

Can one even speak of Americans and Europeans in this grandly generalizing way? Is this not the sin of stereotyping, which all high-minded liberals have learned to abhor? Nobody falls into a general category. Everyone is his or her own elite. As a character in one of James's novels proudly puts it, "We are all princes here."

If Americans jealously safeguard their individuality, then this, ironically, is a general fact about them. It is a truth that applies to all these supposedly incomparable individuals, which means that they cannot really be incomparable after all. Besides, if we were not able to stereotype one another with a fair degree of accuracy, social life would grind to a halt.

Some Americans greet even the mildest European criticism with a raucous reminder that they won the Second World War for Europe. In general, however, Americans these days are more open to being told of the odd imperfection in their culture than they were in Alexis de Tocqueville's time. In fact, there are some in the country who are almost pathologically prepared to believe the very worst about themselves. This is to do themselves quite as much an injustice as to boast that they are God's gift to humanity. But Americans find it hard to do things by halves.

No Self-Mockery, Please, We're American

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Saul Bellow

There is a great tradition of American writing, epitomized in the modern age by the burnished masterpieces of Saul Bellow, in which a luminous poetry is plucked from the prose of everyday life, and the patois of hucksters and dockers invested with epic grandeur. Such writing, at once mundane and magnificent, transcends the commonplace without leaving it behind. It preserves the feel and texture of everyday existence while disclosing a depth within it.

Behind this literary heritage, as behind so much in the United States, lies the culture of Puritanism, with its conviction that daily life is the arena of salvation and damnation. The everyday is the place where the most momentous questions are to be confronted. It is a belief that lends itself naturally to the novel.

There have been too many tales of literary decline, too many premature obituary notices for the novel, too much traditionalist nostalgia for a golden age of letters. Even so, it is hard not to feel that the culture of the word has taken something of a nose dive in America. The same is true of Britain, though to a lesser degree. Hamlet's dying words were: "Absent thee from felicity awhile / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story. ... The rest is silence." Steve Jobs's last words were: "Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow!" Perhaps he did not do quite as much for human communication as his fans imagine. Some American academics deliver their papers at conferences as if translating from the Sanskrit as they go along.

Generally speaking, American students are a delight to teach. Yet they are not always able to voice a coherent English sentence, even at the graduate level. Some of them are easy to mistake for Turks or Albanians who have only just arrived in America and are still struggling with the language. Only later does one realize that they grew up in Boston. They tend to tie themselves up in great chains of unwieldy syntax, overlain with a liberal layer of jargon. Disheveled syntax is true of both genders, but jargon is confined largely to the men. This is part of the painful demise of the spoken word in the United States.

Perhaps the real threat to freedom of speech in the United States is not to freedom but to speech. Perhaps the nation will end up free to say anything it likes while being incapable of saying it. Nor is logical precision a strength of American students. Many of them have had their brains severely addled by an overdose of media. Perhaps they should all have a compulsory first year in which they learn nothing but how to think and speak straight, ridding themselves of the language of texting as a clinic purges its patients of cocaine.

Despite all this, no more generous, open-minded, and enthusiastic group of students can be found in the world. American students tend to be courteous, responsive, cooperative, eager to acquire ideas and ready to criticize anything whatsoever, not least themselves. They are also the last group of students on the planet who are prepared to speak up in class.

No Self-Mockery, Please, We're American

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Toni Morrison

One of the gravest moral defects of Americans is that they tend to be straight, honest, and plain-speaking. There have been various attempts to cure them of those vices, including the establishment of clinics where they can receive intensive therapy for their distressing tendency to mean what they say. Even with compulsory daily readings of Oscar Wilde, however, it is hard to rid them of the prejudice that there is something admirable about what you see being what you get. ("I live in constant fear of not being misunderstood," Wilde once remarked, a statement it is hard to imagine on the lips of Pat Robertson.)

For puritan types, appearances must correspond with realities, the outer presenting a faithful portrait of the inner, whereas irony involves a skewing of the two. To the puritan mind, appearances are acceptable only if they convey a substantial inner truth. Otherwise they are to be mistrusted as specious and superficial.

Hence the familiar American insistence that what matters about a person is what is inside. It is a claim that sits oddly with a society obsessed with self-presentation. There is no room here for what Lenin called the reality of appearances, no appreciation of just how profound surfaces can be, no rejoicing in forms, masks, and signifiers for their own sake.

In The American Scene, James writes of the country's disastrous disregard for appearances. For the Calvinist, a delight in anything for its own sake is sinful. Pleasure must be instrumental to some more worthy goal, such as procreation, rather as play on children's television in America must be tied to some grimly didactic purpose. It can rarely be an end in itself. The fact that there is no social reality without its admixture of artifice, that truth works in terms of masks and conventions, is fatally overlooked.

Language for the puritan is at its finest when it clings to the unvarnished facts. This prejudice has given rise in the States to a thousand creative-writing classes in which sentences like "And then we rolled into town still hauling the dead mule and Davy said how about some fried eggs and he was still kind of sniggering at the thought of Charlie hollering at that goddam prairie dog and we landed up at Joey's place with the sun still warm on our backs and the coffee was good and strong" are judged superior to anything that overhyped Stratford hack ever managed to pull off.

The United States is one of the few places where stylelessness has become a style, cultivated with all the passion and precision of a Woolf or a Joyce. It is against this current that the likes of Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Adrienne Rich are forced to swim. It was not always thus. Jeffersonian Virginia was renowned for its oratory and rhetoric. A fluency of speech and manner was thought by some Americans of the period to provide a bulwark against the dangers of demagoguery.

There were those, to be sure, who regarded rhetoric as suspect. It was a form of manipulative speech typical of the ruling powers of the Old World, and thus out of place in a genuine democracy. For a certain kind of English patrician, by contrast, irony is less a figure of speech than a way of life. As a highly Europeanized American observes in James's The Europeans, "I don't think it's what one does or doesn't do that promotes enjoyment. ... It is the general way of looking at life." The gentleman's amused, ironic outlook on human existence is a way of engaging with the world while also keeping it languidly at arm's length. It suggests an awareness of different possibilities, one beyond the reach of those who must immerse themselves in the actual in order to survive.

The aristocrat can savor a variety of viewpoints because none of them is likely to undermine his own. This is because he has no viewpoint of his own. Opinions are for the plebes. To have a point of view is to be as uncouth and one-sided as a militant trade unionist. It would be a threat to one's sang-froid and thus to one's sovereignty. To find the cosmos mildly entertaining has always been a sign of power in Britain. It is the political reality behind Oxford and Cambridge wit. Seriousness is for scientists and shopkeepers.

No Self-Mockery, Please, We're American

Americans are unflaggingly active, curious, and loquacious. British academics who are asked what they are working on will tend to reply dismissively, "Oh, Gothic, vampires, that sort of thing." They seem no more eager to discuss their research than they are to discuss their hemorrhoids. This is because it is thought bad form to jaw on about oneself and one's work. I spent 20 years in an Oxford college without once hearing my colleagues discuss their work with each other in more than the most cursory way. It is also because the British are modest, and have much to be modest about.

If you ask an American academic what he or she is working on, however, you should be sure to equip yourself with a folding chair, a flask of coffee, and a thick wedge of sandwiches, since you are still likely to be there three hours later. It is not that Americans are immodest; simply enthusiastic. If you are trying to pick your way through the traffic on Fifth Avenue with an American graduate student at your side, he is bound to ask you what you think about hermeneutical phenomenology just as a taxi is about to toss both of you over its roof.

Behind this British reticence lurks the cult of amateurism, so deeply alien to the United States. One of James's American characters is unclear on what the word "amateur" means, but suspects that it may be a European term for a broker or grain exporter. People who hold forth about their work are professionals, and professionals are not really gentlemen. Gentlemen leave earnestness to pastors and specialist knowledge to their chefs.

The phrase "to talk shop" suggests that technical discussions are the province of tailors and barbers. Gentlemen are formidably cultivated, but they acquire their cultivation in a careless, offhand, unlaborious way, as you might acquire a small lump on the back of the neck. To parade your knowledge would be as vulgar as to parade your genitals.

Besides, boring other people is a more grievous offense in Britain. Americans are concerned about sin, and the British about bad manners. It is all right in Britain to talk about serious matters as long as you also find a way to make them entertaining. "Amusing" is one of the most affirmative words in the gentleman's vocabulary, and those who display this virtue can generally be forgiven for also being fraudsters or bigamists. As befits a puritan race, Americans tend to make a sharper distinction between what is serious and what is not.

No Self-Mockery, Please, We're American

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James, who died in 1916, was not to know that American and European values would become even more interwoven in the next century. One of the most striking paradoxes of the United States is that a nation of austere, industrious men and women gave birth to a culture of liberal values and rampant hedonism. In the end, all that draining of swamps and hacking down of forests resulted in one of the world's great civilizations.

It also resulted in Hugh Hefner and Ben & Jerry. Or, to put the point differently, industrial capitalism eventually yielded to consumer capitalism, as it did elsewhere in the world. Elsewhere, however, the contrast between the two is not always so glaring. Italy and Greece are consumer societies, but those nations were not founded by men in white collars and tall black hats who believed that enjoyment for its own sake was the work of the devil.

The problem is that consumer values in the States have not simply taken over from productive ones. For one thing, the consumer industry itself needs to be produced. For another thing, puritan values are far too robust to yield to strip joints without a struggle. They continue to flourish side by side with liberal and consumerist ones, which is what makes the United States such a chronically schizoid culture.

How its citizens are required to act in the bedroom or boardroom is not at all how they are expected to behave in the disco or shopping mall. Regulation is taboo in the marketplace but mandatory in the home, school, and public sphere. This is by no means true only of the United States, though it appears there in most graphic form. Modern capitalist societies make contradictory demands on their citizens, depending on whether they happen to be in the chapel or the casino.

That is why the quarrel in James between the pleasurable and the dutiful, or the liberal and authoritarian, is as relevant today as it was a century ago. It is just that it no longer takes the form of a clash between America and Europe. The conflict is much nearer to home than that. A new nation has been born in America, one far less hidebound than the old, but the old one survives alongside it.

The centered, repressive, self-disciplined ego of production and puritan values is at war with the decentered, liberated, consumerist self. The two cultures can negotiate compromises from time to time, but there is no possibility of a perpetual peace between them. In some ways, their respective inhabitants are as alien to each other as Borneans and Berliners. No wonder the politicians keep loudly proclaiming that there is only one America.

Whenever one hears declarations of unity, one knows that the situation must be dire indeed, rather as whenever one hears appeals for harmony one knows that someone's interests are under threat.

No Self-Mockery, Please, We're American

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What should Americans do to be saved? They should try to think negatively. Learning how to mock themselves would be an incomparably greater achievement than landing on Mars. They should stop selling themselves as the finest country in the world because there is no such thing, any more than there are Gorgons and goblins. There should be compulsory courses for all college freshmen in how not to mean what you say.

Above all, they should stop making such a song and dance about salvation. They should try to be less moral, idealistic, earnest, and high-minded. They should take a break from all that uplifting, inspiring, healing, empowering, dreaming, edifying, and aspiring. Then they might be more admirable people. In many respects—in their friendliness, honesty, openness, inventiveness, courtesy, civic pride, ease of manner, generosity of spirit, and egalitarian manners—they are admirable enough already.

But Americans are the first to admit that there is always room for improvement. It is an honorable puritan doctrine. The good news about the citizens of this kindly, violent, bigoted, generous-spirited nation is that if ever the planet is plunged into nuclear war, they will be the first to crawl over the edge of the crater, dust themselves down, and proceed to build a new world. The bad news is that they will probably have started the war.

Terry Eagleton is a visiting professor at Lancaster University, in England; the National University of Ireland; and the University of Notre Dame. This essay is adapted from his new book, Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America, just out from W.W. Norton & Company.

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