Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Two for Tuesday

On a Two for Tuesday, a rock radio station plays pairs of songs by the same band or performer. Fort Kant doesn’t require this strict identity, but it insists on some unity, or continuity, between its Two for Tuesday selections.

So what joins Wallace Shawn’s The Fever and Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place? Well, both are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hmm. Got anything else? Jamaica Kincaid is married to Wallace Shawn’s brother, an academic composer. OK, but? Jamaica Kincaid got her big break in writing in the New Yorker (one can just send something in, and it’ll get published if it’s good enough, you know); Wallace Shawn’s father, William Shawn, was once an important editor of the New Yorker. Whatever—just consider these texts on their own terms.

The Fever, which is said to be a play, tells of the moral emergency experienced by a well-educated New York consumer of sophisticated cultural products as he travels in an unspecified “revolutionary country.” The content of this moral emergency falls under the rubric of criticism of capitalism, but its force is entirely first-personal.

What is this moral emergency?

It’s not just that the narrator sees that the pleasures he and his kind, liberal friends enjoy would be impossible without the stolen labor and lives of underclass men and women the world over—though he does see this.

It’s not just that he sees that his and his friends’ ideology that gradual progress by legal, consensual means is the most reasonable and moral way of improving the lot of the poor—that this ideology is a crass and dishonest and basically totally effective way of blinding oneself to the fact that one is basically OK with massive disparities in wealth, that all one really wants is to get and preserve what one was raised to believe one had a natural right to, that one would lock the door and call the police rather than admit a hungry person to his home, etc.—though he does see this.

It’s not just that he sees that the poor are permanently poor. Rather, the dizzying thought is that he is not permanently privileged. The really sickening thought is that your life of privilege and property is not given to you and fixed for all time—you renew it each day, you actively reproduce it, you perform continually the relations of power that keep your class status intact. If you were truly moved by the claims of justice, you could easily make your property less private.

The sighting of this radical possibility could represent the first glimmer of revolutionary consciousness, or it could just make you hunch over a third-world toilet and throw up. This latter is the experience of The Fever’s narrator, for whom the near-revolutionary thought is a largely subjectivist and psychologistic affair, a matter of personal moral-existential guilt, not an occasion for solidarity and organization and collective action, or even individual action. (Though sighting a radical possibility is by far not nothing.)

A Small Place, which is sort of like an essay, addresses a shifting second person—an American tourist on vacation in the West Indies, a generic Westerner implicated in the crimes of colonialism and imperialism, a credulous and stupid colonial subject who gleefully reproduces subjection and inferiority—and makes a series of moral accusations not unlike those the narrator of The Fever directs toward himself. And although he may undertake third-world tourism for reasons wildly different from those of the lower-middle class American office worker, who simply wants to see really blue water and drink rum drinks on a really white beach while watching the activity of natives who seem so oddly content with the simplicity of their lives—although the reasons for their tourism may be so wildly different, that might not matter much to their taxi driver or toilet scrubber, for whom American tourists of all ideologies represent basically the same thing.

Not that Kincaid’s narrator consistently claims solidarity with the subject of colonialistic tourism—she reserves a special rage for the complicity of uneducated Antiguans who are unable to see what ails them, unable to see the global and economic and historical context of what they don’t even acknowledge as a problem , a special and complicated rage made possible largely by her education in European discourses, which education and attendant wish to flee Antigua complicate the whole solidarity question.

Maybe the bond of the two-fer is this: Shawn is radically self-implicating; Kincaid is radically self-excusing and other-implicating, and that other is Shawn. Though in the world, where these texts come from, and to which these texts pertain, Kincaid, for reasons mentioned above, in a certain sense, is Shawn.

But enough! It’s Two for Tuesday. I want to use the best and coolest economics-themed passages from each, but I’ll save them for later, maybe next week. Tonight I can’t help picking two passages that make for a nice game: see if you can guess who’s who. Question two: though the passages seem to express the same ideas, do you find one of them morally more effective? Why?

And so, ordinarily, you are a nice person, an attractive person, a person capable of drawing to yourself the affection of other people (people just like you), a person at home in your own skin (sort of; I mean, in a way; I mean, your dismay and puzzlement are natural to you, because people like you seem to be like that, and so many of the things people like you find admirable about yourselves—the things you think about, the things you think really define you—seem rooted in these feelings)

[…] and though the words “I must get away” do not actually pass from your lips, you make a leap from being that nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of experience to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it; to being a person lying on some faraway beach, your stilled body stinking and glistening in the sand, looking like something first forgotten, then remembered, then not important enough to go back for; to being a person marveling at the harmony (ordinarily, what you would say is the backwardness) and the union these other people (and they are other people) have with nature. […] and since you are being an ugly person this ugly but joyful thought will swell inside you: their ancestors were not clever in the way yours were and not ruthless in the way yours were, for then would it not be you who would be in harmony with nature and backwards in that charming way? An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you.

No. Listen. I want to tell you something. You’ve misinterpreted everything. The old woman who bent down and gave you sugar-covered buns did not love you. You were not loved the way you thought.

Of course I still feel an affection for myself—someone so happy, cute, funny?—

No, I’m trying to tell you that people hate you. I’m trying to explain to you about the people who hate you.

Why do you think that they all love you? And what do you think they would love about you? What are you? There’s no charm in you, there’s nothing graceful, nothing that yields. You’re simply a relentless, unbearable fanatic. Yes, the commando who crawls all night through the mud is much less of a fanatic than you. Look at yourself. Look. You walk so stiffly into your kitchen each morning, you approach your cupboard. You open it, and reach for your coffee, the coffee you expect to find on its shelf. And it has to be there! And if one morning it isn’t there—oh, the hysteria!—the entire world will have to pay. At the very thought of the unexpected, the unexpected deprivation, you begin to twitch, to panic, to pant. That shortness of breath! Listen to your voice on the telephone, listen to the tone that comes into your voice when you talk to one of your very close friends and you talk about your life and you use those expressions—“what I need to live on…”—“the amount I need just in order to live…”—solemn, quiet, no histrionics—the tone of hysteria, the tone of the fanatic—well, yes, of course—it makes sense. You understand your situation. Without a place to live, without clothes, without money, you would be like them, you would be them, you would be what they are—you would be the homeless, you would be the comfortless. So of course, you know it, you will do anything. There are no limits to what you will do. Without the money, your face would become the face of a rat, your hands would be paws—sharp, nimble, ready to scratch, ready to tear.


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