An Essay about an Essay about a Book
In Manfred Wolf’s book, Almost a Foreign Country, subtitled “A Personal Geography in Columns and Aphorisms,” his chapter “The End of Nostalgia” critiques a non-fiction book by an African American journalist, Keith Richburg, whose previously long-cherished, nostalgic dreams about a return to the Mother Continent are shattered by his assignment to cover the early 1990s upheavals in East Africa.
There, Richburg witnesses, as Wolf describes it, “…bodies floating in a river, the mutilations inflicted on the weak, the swagger of children brandishing automatic weapons, the posturing of the ‘Big Man’ whatever his name may happen to be…”
In this critique, Wolf, intensely ruminates, as he often does, about the ramifications of the mental trauma suffered by Richburg, in particular, and humanity in general when we are challenged by gut-wrenching changes to our self-images after a confrontation with unexpected historical or ethnic truths.
I myself suffered a much milder but only slightly less jarring confrontation when I listened to a historical cassette tape of the history of my own previously vaunted, perhaps chauvinistically so, Clan Kerr of the Scottish Borders. The recent history I had heard was true: Lord Phillip Henry Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian (the district within which the City of Edinburgh is located) was Lloyd George’s personal secretary and later His Majesty King George’s Ambassador to the United States of America from 1939 until Kerr’s death in 1940. The full historical truth, however, from the cassette tape, was an alarming account of centuries of feuding between two branches of the Kerr Clan, who had seats in Cessford and Fairniehurst Castles, respectively. These were not feuds conducted in a lordly manner, but rather feuds characterized by “lying in wait” and separating fellow Kerrs’ heads from their bodies by use of the claymore. Assumedly, the beef was all about which branch of the clan inherits the peerage.
In addition to his examination of the painful impact of such quasi-self-realizations, Wolf addresses Richbburg’s cognitive dissonance and puzzlement over the causes of such horrors, in general. Unsaid by either Wolf or Richburg, but twisting in the wind out there, is the nagging suspicion that this isn’t just a “black” thing, but rather, frankly, a human thing.
Wolf states, “My own hunch is that the problem lies not in the weakness of one culture but in the weakness engendered by the collision of one culture with another: in the United States it is black culture against the overarching white, in Africa it may well be native culture in conflict with the overarching demands of an alien, Westernized global community.”
I really think that Wolf is on to something, but to take it even further, more rumination is needed about the pressure-cooker effect of one overpoweringly stronger culture imposing a lid on a more subservient one and then that lid being suddenly blown off by political or historical events. Could this have been at least a partial explanation of the events immediately preceding the bombing of Perl Harbor? Until 1854 Japan was a feudal society probably developmentally equivalent to Europe in the First Millennium. That year, the U.S. forcibly opened up “Nippon” to the Industrial Age and the pressure-cooker lid was firmly affixed. The “home culture vs. foreign culture” cauldron boiled until 1941, when those in favor of expunging foreign influence and economic domination rose to power.
But tempted though we may be to sew-up and put to rest such conundrums, neither the culture-clash nor the pressure-cooker metaphor is very satisfying. Like all things human, the solutions often defy solution.
Take, for example, the culture-clash between the European invaders and North America’s native population. There are two glaringly opposite, historically accurate scenarios. While a group of Eastern Tribes, still referred to by the U.S. Department of the Interior as “The Five Civilized Tribes,” were immediately inspired by the culture of the European invaders, and strove to emulate and adopt that foreign culture, building churches, and school houses, plowing fields and sending higher caste children to Oxford, within a few short years of the European Invasion, other tribes farther out West, have since been seen to wage centuries-old resistance to cultural domination by the Europeans, even to the point of going to war at times. As a government-certified descendant of Native American ancestry I can frankly say that atrocities have been recorded on both sides of this historical clash.
Perhaps, disgusting, horrifying behavior on the part of humans has no connection to cultural differences at all, except obliquely. Perhaps the propensity toward good and evil lurks in our DNA and, absent any extenuating circumstances, the good is more likely to prevail. The reader is encouraged to review the works of Dr. Jane Goodall. There is much to be learned about some of our otherwise inexplicable and repulsive human behavior from her long, detailed and multi-generational observation of a troupe of East African chimpanzees. We can’t hate our ancestors and distant relatives for their lapses of civilized behavior any more than we can hate those fellow primates for showing us that we are, after all, just human.
One thought on “Criticism | An Essay About an Essay About a Book”
I hadn’t read Vernon Kerr’s essay about my essay in my Almost a Foreign Country (2008) for many years, and I had forgotten how good it was. The aphorism “Solutions often defy solution” is itself worth the price of admission. His larger point that the dilemma I describe is perhaps caused by human muddle as much as by what I regard as its cause, a collision of cultures, is, though ultimately inconclusive, rather persuasive.
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