Tuesday, April 1, 2008

WEEPING AND VOMITING: ethnicity, race and Borges



"Are we going around in circles? We're going around, perhaps, but not in circles."

"Doesn't that make you want to vomit, too? To weep while you're vomiting."

from SOMEONE by Robert Pinget.
Translated by Barbara Wright


Celine mentions that we are all students of religion now. His now was the 1930s, 1940s.

Of course we are still students of religion and...


In 1983 I began to publish and edit: ADRIFT WRITINGS: IRISH, IRISH AMERICAN AND... I published three issues and then stopped. ADRIFT is now in the important libraries gathering dust.

I stopped publishing ADRIFT because I could no longer support the idea of an ethnicity based journal of writing.

After three issues of ADRIFT I had published all the important, significant and worthy writers who identified themselves as Irish or Irish American. In a folder I had poems from Thomas Kinsella which had arrived too late. I had not asked Denis Donoghue for a piece of writing for no reason but he should be included along with Desmond O'Grady and John Jordan... as examples of regret.

Because of the ethnic label attached to ADRIFT I received hundreds and hundreds of submissions all demanding publication because they took up so-called Irish themes, were set in Ireland or were describing what it means to be Irish American. By and large that is all these pieces of writing had going for them. I had hoped that the writing I had published existed independent of the ethnic label. These new submissions demanded publication because of their ethnicity... and I was invited to over-look their flaws as literature. I chose not to and the journal ceased.

The letters and submissons from Francis Stuart, Samuel Beckett, Brian Coffey, James Liddy and others await their transportation to some library.

This was a visceral understanding of the limitations of ethnicity.


Another aspect of ethnicity and literature. Many years ago I was in to see the publisher of Alfred A. Knopf. We were talking about Thomas Bernhard. Knopf had published three novels of his in translation and the combined sales of those three books was in the very very low four figures. Knopf persisted in publishing Bernhard to their credit. But this is not about the problem of translation of foreign writers. This publisher explained to me how Knopf thought about foreign writers. We imagine, you could say, that we preside over a sort of motel and each country has a room in it. For many years Thomas Mann occupied the German room. Camus had the French room along with Gide and Sartre. Hamsun had the Norwegian room. Sigrid Unsted had the Swedish room.

So of course I understood that Bernhard would have the Austrian room and that Julian Rios was being tried out for the Spanish room when Knopf published his novels... and Nelida Pinon was tried out for the Brazilian room.

But with the rise of mandatory diversity, publishing was quite prepared for that and of course served up the necessary Dominican Writer Junot Diaz... Sandra Cisneros as the needed Mexican-American writer... while the American-Indian writer was Sherman Alexie and all the while the dread Toni Morrison lurked... and publishing has been happily continuing on with newly discovered ethnics, Indians from India, Pakistani, Arab, Chinese, Japanese... and the list goes on... with the message that one is to read these writers as representatives of their ethnicity and only secondarily as literature... and you are to over-look the usual glaring evident flaws in the writing...


There was a way out of this awful mess via what Pascale Casanova called the World Republic of Letters but that didn't go very far because her two modern examples were William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett... education in America is wedded to the idea of ethnic diversity no matter the drivel being served up...


And while I am in this terrible bog I might as well bring up that other word: race.

Black and White or Colored and White or Negro and White or African American and White...

In Patchogue on Furman Lane in the 1950s, a Negro family moved in next to us. Neighbors came over and asked my father was he worried. He said they were cleaner than most of the white people in Patchogue.

In my high school class of 1962 there were no Negro students. There was one Negro teacher in the high school.

(I have used the word Negro as I remember Ralph Ellison talking about why he preferred it when he came to visit Hollins College in 1970... it was a step up from colored and... seemed a better word than Black. Of course in Patchogue the accepted word was colored and the formal word was Negro. My father used the word colored.


This weekend I was talking with Anna's mother who is 87 and originally from Estonia. She was saying that when she came from the camps in the early 50s it was understood that you wanted to have a Negro doctor as there were so few of them and they must have worked very hard to have gone to medical school and as a result they were the best doctors.


Michelle Obama was widely reported to have felt uncomfortable at that liberal bastion of affirmative action Princeton University. No one has, as far as I know, suggested the reason she felt uncomfortable was at Princeton she was directly confronted by the evidence that at the elite colleges Blacks or African Americans as a group are less gifted than their White or Oriental fellow students... a statistical fact that every one knows is true....


I have long believed that affirmative action is probably the single most destructive policy ever put into practice in this country.

Never again will there be women like Anna's mother believing as she did...

Affirmative action, I have also come to believe was the rich white liberal's way to get back at the source of his or her guilt--- growing up in a family where the maid, the cook or the house cleaner was Negro or Black or African American and then suddenly he or she is made to feel guilty about this during the so-called 60s-- what better way to get at the guilt than by permanently ruining the future of any Black or African American child by allowing him to advance thanks to affirmative action with the inevitable whisper behind his or her back... well, you know he or she is actually not as... even the most diabolical die- hard segregationist could not have come up with a better revenge for having been made to feel bad about... all the while being seen as doing such a good thing...


Remember back to the days of George Wallace? I seem to remember that an awful lot of Negroes or Blacks or African Americans used to vote for George Wallace even up North when he ran for President. When asked why they would say that you know where Wallace stands but he spreads the money around to everybody not like them liberals who tell you how much they understand your situation and then forget about you right after election day because you don't have the right college degree in how to steal the welfare monies under the guise of doing a study or consulting about the future.


I was asking my son why is that the Americans didn't kill all the Indians? We have both been reading of late about Geronimo and the terrible fate of the Apaches... I mentioned to him that I had thought of this question even back when Jorge Luis Borges came to Columbia University in the early 1970s. Richard M. Elman challenged Borges about his cruel portrayal of the Gauchos. Borges had replied along the lines that gauchos did not feel pain like you or I.. Later in the discussion that moved to 110th Street Borges again took up the question of Indians in Argentina by simply saying: there are none. They were all killed.

My son said the other day, you can't ask questions like that.