Tag Archives: american studies

“To be seen or not seen”: Art and Artifice in Don DeLillo’s ‘Zero K’

At 79 years old at the time of writing, it seems fitting that death looms large for Don DeLillo in his most recent novel, Zero K. Fitting also is DeLillo’s pseudo-scientific subject matter in an era driven by high-techological consumerism and the concomitant concerns regarding the potentially insidious role technology may play in our future.

“All plots move deathward” (221) DeLillo wrote in LibraZero K, however, “reverse[s] the text” (128), beginning with death as its subject and never leaving it. In Zero K death is not thematically revealed through plot, but takes center stage from the outset as DeLillo gets his teeth into the great existential debate of cryogenic freezing, whereby wealthy patrons can come to a scientific facility called Convergence to “Rewrite the sad grim grieving playscript of death in the usual manner” (76).

Critical responses thus far have tended to see Zero K in biographical terms as a repository for an ageing DeLillo’s own time-end meditations, or as prophecy of our society’s movement towards so-called “faith-based technology”(9). While there is certainly much ground to cover on both of these subjects, I would suggest that the novel’s central question has less to do with death or the sciences, and a great deal more to do with the position of art itself in the postmodern world – a question, perhaps, all the more intensely pondered by man acutely aware of the reality that his art will outlive him.

As a facility, Convergence lies somewhere between a laboratory, a chapel, and an avant-garde art installation, described as “a model of shape and form, a wilderness of vision, all lines and angles and jutted wings” (229). DeLillo’s protagonist, Jeffrey, leads us through a series of bare, sterile rooms and endless halls with pastel doors that appear to open on to nowhere. Jeffrey is keenly aware of the artifice of the whole spectacle, remarking on the “museum quality” (122) of the carefully constructed walled garden and asking the man he meets if he thinks the garden “suggests a kind of mockery” (123).

Indeed, this sense of fabrication and imitation is embodied by the very characters themselves: Ross and Jeffrey Lockhart carry a borrowed name whimsically chosen, while Ross’ wife – the archaeologist who leaves behind a life of uncovering the past for a presumed future – is saddled with the most obviously loaded first name, ‘Artis’. DeLillo’s choice of title also reveals much about his conception of the novel as a cultural artifact, “Zero K” being in itself a stylisation based on a scientific phenomena which is not even part of the cryogenic process: “The term, then, was pure drama” (143).

In all the novel’s self-aware artifice, DeLillo is engaging with postmodern theories of art and images, such as that of Signs and Simulacra in which Jean Baudrillard argues that we live in a state of hyperreality and can no longer distinguish reality from simulation.

“Simulation is no longer a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreality.” (Baudrillard I)

The notion of hyperreality is explored in the novel through the screens in the Convergence hallways, projecting a torrent of images of catastrophe. The introduction of these images to the story raises powerful questions of how violent images become embedded into our culture to the point of desensitization. Vietnam Monk

Jeffrey, although frequently overwhelmed by what he perceives to be his “role” to “watch whatever they put in front of [him]” (139), recognizes that these images are exactly that: “computer generated, none of it real” (152). Artis, too, is aware of this and it is precisely to escape this indefinite “referral of signifier to signified” (Derrida 25) that she turns to Convergence.

“We’re seeing only imitations. The rest is our intervention, our way of constructing what is actual, if there is any such thing, philosophically, that we can call actual.” (45)

The Convergence promises that its subjects will be reborn into a “deeper and truer reality”, with a new language based on “objective truth” (130).  In this way, DeLillo’s conception of Convergence presents an imagined escape from the intellectual cul-de-sac of postmodernism and its trappings of self-referentiality. Yet Artis’ soliloquy following her ‘death’ points up the utter fallacy of the Utopian notion of objective truth altogether: in her disembodied state the language her consciousness calls up is divorced from any meaning and exists only as words in the ether, “open prose of a third-person voice that is also her voice” (272).

In Zero K DeLillo comes to largely ignore the many debates initially posed by his science-fiction premise. Instead, he sets out to question the very nature of art itself, setting it up against science and death only to reclaim it as a means of representing and organizing reality. As DeLillo himself stated, “art is one of the consolation prizes we receive for having lived in a difficult and sometimes chaotic world” (qtd DeCurits 74). There is no beauty to be found in death, no art, and it is with this assurance that the novel comes to a close – with the rejection of “heaven’s light” (274) and the abundantly alive cries of a young boy.

Citations

Baudrillad, Jean. Signs and Simulacra. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

DeCurtis, Anthony. “An Outsider in this Society: An Interview with Don DeLillo”. Conversations With Don DeLillo. Ed. Thomas DePietro. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

DeLillo, Don. Zero K. London: Picador, 2016.

DeLillo, Don. Libra. London: Penguin, 1989.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1976.

Image Citations

Browne, Malcolm. “The Burning Monk”. Rare Historical Photos. 2nd April 2017 http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/the-burning-monk-1963/

Violence on the Black Body: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me acts as a memoir to the suffering of the black masses in America.

In Coates’ writing of the National Book Award Winner Between the World and Me, he does not hold back on showing his anger at the livelihood of a black man in America, highlighting the dangers and stresses he has personally faced as one in the mass of people victimised in America. This anger percolates each sentence in his letter addressed to his son Samori. Coates uses the epistolary form effectively, telling of the differences between Coates’ own youth and upbringing and that of his son, and yet there is a constant insecurity of being black in contemporary America – something that Coates doesn’t see changing.

Ta-Nehisi and son Samori Coates
Ta-Nehisi and son Samori Coates in the summer of 2013.

A defining point in his son’s education of the ongoing history of the ill treatment of the black people in America is the injustice surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown, believed to have been surrendering to the police before being shot six times. Coates states:

That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. (Coates, 11).

Coates furthers upon his argument by averring that he “didn’t hug you… comfort you, because [he] thought it would be wrong to comfort you. [He] did not tell you that it would be okay, because [he had] never believed it would be okay.” (Coates, 11). In directly addressing his son, and the reader, Coates delivers his view on the injustice that permeates American society. His frank declaration on the objectification of the black body – that which has never been, isn’t and never will be secure – highlights the mentality of the black male (or female) as one with a rendered sense or lack of identity, powerless to the white aggressor. Henderson recognises the power of America’s coloured past acknowledging that “the legal and social discourse of slavery created a national language for the propagation of mythological half-truths and socially sanctioned phobias about African men. Their progeny, descendants of this legacy, inherited a birthright unlike any other group.” (Henderson, 139). These phobias relate to Coates’ writings on the commodification of the black body as something that does not belong to the rightful owner. Coates recalls an incident in his childhood of a “light-skinned boy with a long head and small eyes” (Coates, 19) who by holding a gun was also “holding [Coates’] entire body in his small hands” (Coates, 19). Coates’ identity is stripped away from him as he is reduced to a tool or a weapon. Coates’ mind-set equates his black body with the gun in someone else’s hands.

Coates reiterates to his son the perils of living in America as a black man, by reminiscing the past of America, i.e. slavery. With a lack of identity and knowledge of his suppression, Coates reclaims control over what little he can, as:

We could not control our enemies’ number, strength, nor weaponry… But whether you fought or ran, you did it together, because that is the part that was in our control. What we must never do is willingly hand over our bodies or the bodies of our friends. (Coates, 69).

Here Coates shows the overwhelming force against the black body as singular and definitive. Yet he believes in the community of black individuals that are brutalised together. Furthering this, he personifies slavery as a “particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own.” (Coates, 69). By personifying slavery itself, Coates shows how each person in the black diaspora of slavery was an individual, and “not an indefinable mass of flesh” (Coates, 69). Coates echoes the idea that “Black people’s humanity is a fairly new discovery,” (Jackson, 9) by linking the past of slavery with the current treatment of the black body in today’s society. He creates a living link between those who suffered and died in slavery and those of today who are still suffering and dying by oppressors. Coates’ writing acts as a memoir to the past, present and in his eyes future suffering of the black people in America.

Coates argues against the treatment of the black body by highlighting the way actions of another will be irrevocably placed on his son, as he informs his son, “you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which somehow, will always be assigned to you.” (Coates, 73). Here he shows the mentality of his oppressors that remove their individual identities in favour of a systematic ‘white and black’ duality. This duality of ‘us against them’ is a fragment of the “historical continuity here that speaks to the perpetuation of the white racist imago of the Black body, where there is an attempt to ontologically truncate the Black body into the very essence of criminality, danger, suspicion” (Yancy, 7). The black bodies that Coates speaks of are never shown in a positive manner but inherently negative. His son shall carry the burdens (and the worst) that other black bodies have carried out. In Coates’ teachings to his son, the modern blanket term of ‘white people’ see no positives in the black body. Coates furthers his argument by stating that “race is the child of racism, not the father” (Coates, 7) and that white people are “a modern invention” (Coates, 9), a term that has “no real meaning… [as] the new people were something else before they were white – Catholic, Corisican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish” (Coates, 9).  Coates undermines the base argument of racism through his condemning of the term ‘white’. If ‘white people’ are in fact something else such as Catholic or Corisican, then black people can be for once seen as human.

Bibliography

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Melbourne, AU: Text Publishing Co, 2015.

Henderson, Carol E. Scarring the Black Body: Race and Representation in African American Literature. Columbia, US: University of Missouri Press, 2002.

Jackson, Ronald L. Scripting the Black Masculine Body. Ithaca, US: SUNY Press, 2006.

Yancy, George. “White Suturing, Black Bodies, and the Myth of a Post-Racial America.” ARTS, vol. 26, no. 2, 2015, pp. 5-14.

Photo Credit

Image 1 found on:

“Ta-Nehisi Coates: ‘In America, It Is Traditional to Destroy the Black Body’.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 20 Sept. 2015. Web. 27 Feb. 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/20/ta-nehisi-coates-between-the-world-and-me-extract>.

Also found in:

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Melbourne, AU: Text Publishing Co, 2015. Pg 148.

History and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

At first glance, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad seems to be a simplistic, if freshly published, tale of the well-known and frequently romanticized journey that led escaped slaves of the nineteenth-century United States to the freedom commonly associated with the northern half of the country. As Julian Lucas describes in “New Black Worlds to Know,” the title of the novel is reminiscent of a childish “pictogram past,” a functioning gross oversimplification of what is historically known to have been a collection of horrific trials that those who were brave and desperate enough to run away encountered more times than not. Beyond the title, Whitehead weaves a tale that is almost familiar; in many ways, the basic details of the story seem to be possessed by the ghosts of slave narratives past. In comparing The Underground Railroad to the “conventions of slave narratives” prescribed by renown critic James Olney, the vague familiarity of the narrative makes sense.

Plantation
A former slave dwelling on Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC stands today.

One example is in relation to Olney’s insistence on a character’s specification of “a place but not a date of birth” (50). The birthplaces of Cora, her mother, and her maternal grandmother are all described within the first two chapters of the novel; Ajarry “had never seen the ocean” before being kidnapped from her home village in western Africa (date unknown), and Mable was the only surviving child of five who were “each delivered in the same spot on the planks of the cabin” on the Randall plantation (Whitehead 3, 7). Cora was likewise born in a cabin on the plantation, but hers is the only birth close to being dated—during her conversation with Lovey on the topic, readers are shown that she “was born in winter,” during a “rare frost” (Whitehead 12). No day, month, or year is available to give any further information. Several other items from Olney’s list of conventions also resonate within The Underground Railroad; there are numerous “description[s] of a cruel master…[and] overseer,” and the topic of “slave literacy and the overwhelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write” is visited multiple times (Olney 50).

 

Alligator
An alligator much like those in the swamps of The Underground Railroad can be seen swimming around Magnolia Plantation.

What becomes increasingly obvious as the narrative moves on (and Cora moves further away from the Georgia plantation) is that this slave narrative is not all of one time period. The titular concept is no longer a romanticized one; it becomes a series of locomotives that travel to and from underground stations, a literal subterranean railroad escorting former slaves to freedom. After her first encounter with this system, Cora is shocked when she sees Whitehead’s first obvious anachronism—a skyscraper described as “one of the tallest buildings in the nation,” towering over everything with its twelve floors (86). From near the top of the Griffin Building, Cora can see “the configuration of the town and the verdant countryside for miles and miles;” the window she views this from is in a medical examination room, which nods to the building as a symbol for what Cora eventually realizes is happening in South Carolina (Whitehead 100). Under the guise of freedom, the South Carolinian government is closely monitoring the former slaves and essentially manipulating them in ways that did not historically occur until much later; Lucas compares these “eugenic horrors” to the infamous “Tuskegee syphilis experiments” and the forced sterilization of “tens of thousands of black women” over the course of the twentieth-century. In a similar fashion, Whitehead’s Caucasian North Carolinians took their disproportionate population issues into their own hands; using methods like those of the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 (or, as Lucas calls it, the “1898 Wilmington insurrection”), colored people are slaughtered, usually lynched for everyone to see.

 

Old socket
An image of disjointed history, an electrical outlet on Magnolia Plantation exemplifies how the past and present often meet.

Though I could spend a significant amount of time dissecting how these temporal collisions play out within the novel, I do argue that each individual anachronism is slightly less important than their collective contribution to the novel and the question of contemporary race more broadly. In “Speculative Fictions of Slavery,” Madhu Dubey claims that the subgenre named in the title “attempt[s] to know the past as something other or more than history” (780). Whitehead’s method of mashing different eras of the past together indicates a perceived need to move beyond the history of slavery that is so frequently romanticized and made distant from the modern day. By breaking from the realism arguably exhibited in the novel’s early plantation scenes, the narrative of The Underground Railroad “discredits the objective truth-telling claims of modern historiography” (Dubey 783).

I find that Whitehead is not breaking from the historical style of slave narratives just for the sake of invoking tension with other literatures; his method is used to reconcile readers to the fact that there are clear connections between the historical period of American slavery and all of the atrocities that have followed, arguably up to and including modern occurrences of “the police killings of unarmed black people, the rise of the carceral state, and the return of explicit white supremacy to national politics” (Lucas). The novel itself supports this connection to the twenty-first century. In the final chapter, Cora finally seems to be rid of everything that had tied her to slavery—the Randalls are all now deceased, Ridgeway is no longer capable of pursuit, and she is in the free state of Indiana. Instead of feeling relieved, Cora is haunted by the losses she endured; she also does not stop in her journey. While the last sentence of the novel shows Cora wondering of her new companion “where he escaped from, how bad it was, and how far he travelled before he put it behind him,” this sense of personal history is again mingling with the fact that Cora’s journey forward is ongoing, and never comes to an end for readers (Whitehead 306).

 

Works Cited

Dubey, Madhu. “Speculative Fictions of Slavery.” American Literature, vol. 82, no. 4, 2010, pp. 779-802.

Knight, Kassi. Alligator at Magnolia. 2017, photograph, Art Institute of Charleston.

—. Slave Dwellings. 2017, photograph, Art Institute of Charleston.

—. We have Power. 2017, photograph, Art Institute of Charleston.

Lucas, Julian. “New Black Worlds to Know.” The New York Review of Books. N.p., 29 Sept. 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Olney, James. “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.”Callaloo, no. 20, 1984, pp. 46–73.

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Fleet, 2016. Print.

Adam, Eve and the Wilderness: An Exploration of Gender and the Pastoral in Housekeeping

Academic Blog 1

by Lewis Sloan

In his chronology of the themes of nature and rurality in American literature, Buell points out how it was D.H. Lawrence who first popularized the image of American writing as a “deviant pursuit by a psychohistorical explanation of the American (male) writer as an escapee from civilisation” (1). This escape from civilisation is characterised by a life in the wilderness, ideally free from the ties of society and with a unity with nature. Buell’s parenthetical gender distinction is significant. The quintessential ‘American frontiersman’ or ‘American Adam’ is found in many works of American literature and indeed in contemporary art today, for example the character of Don Draper in Mad Men (Ryan 1). But what about the ‘American Eve’?  What was the frontier experience and the significance of the ‘American Pastoral’ for the female?

An important aspect of the American Adam’s escape from civilisation is his (usually westward-bound) journey toward the ‘wilderness’. In Thoreau’s case, this escape to the wilderness involves an attempt to “live free and uncommitted” within nature (61). This ‘free and uncommitted life’ also involves a lack of commitment to human relationships resulting in a degree of solitude. For Thoreau, he cannot be lonely as he is “a part of nature” (100). This wilderness is in contradistinction with the village life; he states that he chose the plot for his home because of how far it was from the village (59).

These two distinctive worlds are present also in Housekeeping. Once Sylvie becomes the girl’s only guardian, the three live apart from society, which is embodied in the village of Fingerbone.  However, I would argue that the level to which Thoreau and the characters in Housekeeping are ‘uncommitted’ to what Ruth dubs the “other world” differs at certain points throughout the texts (Robinson 123).

As Buell notes, long before Thoreau, male narratives of “self-reliant cabin dwelling isolators” are common, whereas “the commonest counterpart narrative of women’s experience” is the story of the “female hermit”. This archetype is usually required to live apart from society due to a scandalous affair that left her pregnant with a child that often died in infancy.  To an extent, the character of Sylvie is this ‘female hermit’ that Buell describes, having moved back to her hometown after a marriage to a mysterious Mr. Fisher which the reader is granted limited information about.  He goes on to point out that “In adolescence, female protagonists become socialized away from nature, while the male continues to enjoy freer mobility and the option of questing and conquest within nature” (15). Thoreau, in Walden, is this quintessential self-reliant figure who seeks solitude in order to live more ‘deliberately’ (66). But the character of Sylvie cannot be. Throughout the course of the novel, Sylvie is increasingly judged as strange (not least by Lucille) and even dangerous due to the fact that she has not been ‘socialised away from nature’. In fact, she lives comfortably within it. Like the cabin in Walden, her home is overthrown by the elements, with wind, vegetation and flood-water making their way indoors.

Despite his advocacy for solitude, Thoreau himself notes that he is “no hermit” (105). Throughout his time in the woods he has various visitors; from the Canadian wood-chopper, to the children he appreciated for their enthusiasm and innocence. He even admits to finding the gossip he hears in the village entertaining, although he does not remain there for long. He delves in and out of the ‘other world’ of civilisation when he desires, whereas Sylvie remains insular and isolated.  I would argue that while Thoreau looks toward the civilised world at certain points, the women in Housekeeping try many times to escape it, but cannot. Buell notes that “the wilderness in American writing serves as a liminal site for male self-fulfillment in recoil from adult responsibility associated with female-dominated culture” (1). For me, however, it is Sylvie that most avidly wishes to recoil from this adult responsibility, as she stands in stark contrast to the perceived ideal womanhood exemplified in the notion of ‘good housekeeping’. Like Thoreau, she desires to live within nature, getting lost among trees, sleeping on park benches and refusing to attach ownership to objects (I’m thinking of the mildly amusing scene in which she steals the rowing boat from a stranger). However, she is not perceived as a great thinker, or an admirable ‘frontierswoman’. This is no social experiment for her. She is the subject of persecution and fear to the people of the ‘other world’, personified by the Sheriff and Lucille’s teacher (whom the girl eventually chooses to live with).

As Sarah D. Hartshorne articulates, the ‘American Adam’ is also present in Housekeeping, albeit briefly, in the form of the Ruth and Lucille’s grandfather (51). However, he is sent right down to the bottom of Fingerbone’s Lake, making clear that this is a story distinctly about the female experience; the experience of the ‘American Eve’ left behind. The ‘American Eve’ who lives within nature, in the case of Sylvie, completely submerges herself (eventually) into the wilderness. In the penultimate chapter of Walden, Thoreau states the date of his departure from the woods; his wilderness. The frontiersman here decides to return to the life of civilisation while the females in Housekeeping take desperate measures to remain separate from the ‘other world’ to which they had already lost Lucille. They burn down their house in a final attempt to live the stripped life Thoreau advocates and continue to drift, entering finally into darkness (a trope that maintains strong links with nature and pastoral imagery throughout the book). For me, the character of Sylvie embodies Thoreau’s philosophy more wholly than he does himself in some ways, choosing complete separation from society (‘civilisation’) while doing so in the face of the unique attitudes toward women at the time.

Bibliography

Buell, Lawrence. “American Pastoral Ideology Reappraised.” American Literary History 1st ser. 1 (1989): 1-29. Web.

Hartshorne, Sarah D. “Lake Fingerbone and Walden Pond: A Commentary on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.” Modern Language Studies 20.3 (1990): 50-57. Web.

Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980. Print.

Ryan, Maureen. “Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: The Subversive Narrative and the New American Eve.” South Atlantic Review, 56.1 (1991): 79-86. Web.

Thoreau, Henry David, and J. Lyndon Shanley. <i>Walden</i>. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1971. Print.

Photos Credits

1. Image by Magnus Manske, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walden#/media/File:Replica_of_Thoreau%27s_cabin_near_Walden_Pond_and_his_statue.jpg

2. Image by The American Leadership Forum, http://www.alf-mvc.org/clientuploads/directory/features/Wilderness.jpg

Democratic Blind Spots: An Analysis of Flawed Freedom in Reading Lolita in Tehran

Firstly, I must confess that upon first reading Behdad’s and Williams’ scathing criticism of Azar Nafisi’s Iranian memoir, I sprung to Nafisi’s defence, eager to prove the article’s neo-orientalist accusations to be exaggerated and ill-founded. While I still believe there are contentious points, and I do not wish to digress into Nafisi’s alleged ‘complicity’ with U.S. neoconservative agencies, I now concede that Reading Lolita in Tehran is no apolitical recount of history: unwittingly or not, it is shrouded in Western ideology and fuelled by Islamophobic assumptions.

 

Hidden Ideology

Reading Lolita in Tehran is laden with contradictions, which Rowe acknowledges makes Nafisi ‘a more complex figure’ than a mere mouthpiece for neoconservative agendas (254). At times, the narrator collapses false binaries, ridiculing the notion that ‘there were Western and Islamic versions of democracy and human rights’ (261), before again conflating Islam with an authoritarian system of oppression.

Previously, however, democracy is aligned exclusively with American values, as Nafisi regurgitates American mythic rhetoric: ‘here is the first lesson in democracy: all individuals, no matter how contemptible, have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ (42). Nafisi’s reverence towards her U.S. haven hides the reality that Western democracy is itself an ideology.

Žižek argues against the assumption that ‘the only alternative to ‘fundamentalism’ is the political system of liberal parliamentary democracy’ (3). While totalitarian regulation ‘effectively breeds rebellion; the only way to secure social servitude is through freedom of thought’ (Žižek 3).

This paradox is apparent throughout Nafisi’s memoir, as she demonstrates how transgressive acts against the Islamic Republic empower an Iranian subject, yet fails to recognise how democratic ‘freedom’ may remove the critical agency of an American subject.

In Part I, Nafisi delights in defiance, as everyday acts ‘acquired the complexity of a dangerous secret mission’ (56), and later suggests that she actually benefitted from being forced underground (176). In Part IV, Nafisi paints those resisting the regime in a heroic light, aligning their strength with an acceptance and desire for the ‘freedoms’ of democracy:

‘Disillusioned with the Islamic Revolution and confronted by the ideological void that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, they had nowhere to turn but to the Western democracies they had once so vehemently opposed’ (276).

Nafisi’s adoption of an omniscient tone here displays the ‘journalistic truth’ that Behdad and Williams argue is a crucial trope of neo-orientalist texts (289), while also heralding the inevitable triumph of democracy.

democracy_will_come_to_you

Eventually, Nafisi betrays some awareness that she has idealised the West, showing concern that she has provided her daughters with an ‘uncritical, glowing picture of that other world’ (281). This influence extends to her female students, who she states ‘look at the West too uncritically’ (312). Yet in both instances, Nafisi’s accountability is displaced, as both the professor and her ‘magician’ (externalised ego?) locate the root of this idealism in the State’s extreme radicalism: ‘thanks to the Islamic Republic’ (312).

Beneath this glossy image of the West lies an occasional acknowledgement of America’s tainted history. For example, through her analysis of Fitzgerald’s Nick, Nafisi uncovers the ‘tales of the pioneers’ that colonised America with their dream ‘already tainted with the violence that had gone into making it real’ (143).

Yet despite this brief flirtation with concrete history, the narrative remains oblivious to what Donald Pease describes as America’s longstanding ‘structures of disavowal’ and ‘imperial state exceptionalisms’ (19, 25), through which the global power uses its imagined moral superiority to legitimise involvement overseas.

Politics of the Veil

This attitude of superiority is most apparent in the treatment of the veil – undeniably burdened by Nafisi’s political agenda to promote Western secularism. The novel claims it is not the physical hijab, but the mandatory  nature of veiling that constitutes female oppression. In Part III, Nafisi attempts to ‘humanise’ Tehran, buckling under the strain of the continuing war with Iraq, through using the veil as a metaphor:

‘To me, the city had suddenly gained a new pathos, as if, under the attacks and the desertions, it had shed its vulgar veil to reveal a decent, humane face’ (207).

This application of loaded emotions to the veiled and unveiled female face shatters the illusion that ‘freedom of choice’ is the novel’s central concern (152). Here, Nafisi overtly constructs an Islamophobic binary of harsh, inhumane ugliness, aligned with traditional Islam, and compassionate empathy and openness, associated with ‘modern’ Western secularism.

hijab-2

Also revealing is the memoir’s deployment of liberal individualism to justify the free choice of women to wear the veil. Before the revolution, Mahshid wore the veil as a ‘testament to her faith’ yet this is described as ‘meaningless’ once it became mandatory (13).

‘During the Shah’s time, it was different. I felt I was in the minority and I had to guard my faith against all odds. Now that my religion is in power, I feel more helpless than ever before, and more alienated’ (327).

This characterisation presents Mahshid’s faith as egocentric and the veil as a visual statement of difference, rather than a sign of modesty and devotion to God. Nafisi’s understanding of ‘freedom’ is consequently exposed as flawed, constructed purely from American ideology. This supports Behdad’s and Williams’ analysis that ‘the veil has come to serve as a crucial site for constructing and reaffirming a hierarchical and “civilizing” relationship between the West and Muslim societies’ (294).

 

Reading Lolita in Tehran is therefore testament to the dangers of liberal individualism and the power of the Western rhetoric of ‘freedom’ to limit and even prevent critical thought. Behind Nafisi’s triumphant advocacy – another symptom of American Exceptionalism – of women’s rights and the promotion of democracy, she has unwittingly (or not) replaced one ideology with another.

My initial resistance to Behdad’s and Williams’ criticism is perhaps evidence that I too almost fell victim to the alluring liberal egotism that assumes Western democracy to be the saving grace, and only viable option, for totalitarian – and specifically Islamic – nation states.

 

By Eve Ryan 

 

Bibliography

Behdad, Ali and Juliet Williams. “Neo-Orientalism”. Globalising American Studies. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010. 283-299. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

Keshavarz, Fatemeh. Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran. London: Harper Perennial, 2007. Print.

Pease, Donald. “Rethinking American Studies after US Exceptionalism”. American Literary History 21.1 (2009): 19-27. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

Rowe, John Carlos. “Reading Reading Lolita in Tehran in Idaho”. American Quarterly 59.2 (2007): 253-275. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.

Žižek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real! Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. London: Verso, 2002. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

 

Photo Credits

  1. Image by Nima Shirazi, http://www.wideasleepinamerica.com  
  2. Image by Lu Xian Sheng, http://powerpointparadise.com/blog/about/
  3. Image by Aisha Aijaz, http://blogs.thenews.com.pk/blogs/2012/09/why-is-my-hijab-your-problem/

Masquerade and Myth: Examining the Authenticity of Selfhood in Mad Men, Housekeeping and Casino

by Sarah McCreedy

‘I like being bad and then going home and being good’. (S2, ep3). Mad Men’s Bobbie Barrett can scarcely be called a moral instructor, but her acknowledgement and acceptance of her masquerade can be called authentic. In the context of this critical review, authenticity cannot be discussed without reference to imitation. To clarify, Miles Orvell has considered the shift in cultural privilege from the latter to the former which emerged between 1880-1940 as, ‘an effort to get beyond mere imitation, beyond the manufacturing of illusions, to the creation of more ‘authentic’ works that were themselves real things’. (xv). Mad Men is this manufacturing of illusion in the form of an imitation of American life in the 1960s. Therefore, how can we expect Donald Draper, an occupant of this copy, to be anything close to the ‘real thing’? Similarly, Martin Scorsese’s Casino, ‘offers a mythologized version of the last days of the mob in 1970s Las Vegas’. (Rothman, 307). Before we can even interrogate the authenticity of selfhood depicted in the film, we are aware that the characters Sam Rothstein and Nicky Santoro are based on mob figures that can be situated in reality. Antithetically, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is located in Fingerbone; an imagined space authentic precisely because this novel marks its debut. I am not asserting that, because Fingerbone is ‘original’, every individual who occupies it is bursting with authenticity. Robinson needs to include characters such as the sheriff, offering his ultimate American symbol of apple pie, in order to represent the traditional hetero-normative American experience as the alternative for her female protagonists. All I propose is that Robinson privileges Sylvie and Ruthie in this space in which, because it is primarily original, and secondly new, their identities are permitted authenticity. To define what is meant by ‘myth’ in this context, Roland Barthes asserts that the, ‘function of myth is to empty reality’. (143). Whilst Housekeeping may not restore this reality, it attempts to negate myths.

Mad Men also challenges these myths surrounding the white, male, American elitist. R.W.B.  Lewis saw the ‘American Adam’ embodied in the characteristics of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, ‘liberated, innocent, solitary, forward-thrusting’. (28). Mad Men supports the idea that this figure is indeed a myth. Gene Wise argues that, ‘Those who still envisioned themselves isolated “American Adams” by the 1950s and 60s were largely deceived’. (310). Authenticity, as I have already enforced, cannot exist in an inherently constructed environment, but Mad Men indulges in particular ironies which clarify this truth. To exemplify, Don’s creativity demonstrated in his various pitches for Sterling Cooper is precisely what acquires accounts. However, outside of this context, his creativity is absent. His only authenticity lies in the act of imitation. Like academies throughout America in the 1960s, Don can be accused of being a ‘bastion[s]of reaction’. (Wise, 311). Even in a seemingly authentic moment of realisation, in which Don reads Frank O’Hara poetry in an attempt to display spiritual or emotional depth, it is difficult to shake the imitative origins of this discovery.

Of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his iconic essay “Self-Reliance” states, ‘imitation is suicide’. (1164). In Housekeeping, the train that passes before Sylvie’s (debatable) suicide attempt embodies the order she wishes to escape from: ‘From such a distance it seemed a slight thing, but we all watched it, perhaps struck by the steady purpose with which it moved, as methodical as a caterpillar on a straw’. (80). Her largely unsuccessful masquerade of ‘steady purpose’ as a mother and as a socially accepted member of the community tortures her as it is indeed an imitation – Ruthie and Lucille are not her children, and she is a transient not wishing to reside for an extended period of time in Fingerbone. This denial of the authentic self is what inspires her depression and suicidal tendencies.

Ultimately, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping presents the resurrection of Eve, privileging her over the American Adam. Maureen Ryan acknowledges this fact, ‘Marilynne Robinson revises the traditional American myth of freedom and transcience, endorsing not independence over commitment, autonomy over family, but both; affirming, finally, female difference’. (86). Ruthie notes, ‘Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection. Perhaps we expected a train to leap out of the water, caboose foremost, as if in a movie run backward, and then to continue across the bridge’. (96). Sylvie and Ruthie are granted this resurrection in the act of leaving the house, and Fingerbone, the site of patriarchal tradition. Ryan states that, ‘The classic American experience is the rejection of the restrictive forces of civilization’. (81). On conclusion of the novel however, Ruthie informs us that she still works occasionally as a waitress. Housekeeping begs the question then: can the idle and the civilised coexist? For Emerson, ‘Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members’. (1165). Arguably then, the restrictive forces of capitalist society will always undermine the authenticity of selfhood, and induce a form of masquerade.

Rather than rejecting these ‘restrictive forces’, Don and Ace Rothstein are captivated by them. Sylvie rejects the institution of marriage often entirely omitting her husband’s existence, and as a transient, never embarks upon a career. Don and Rothstein however, sell their souls to work, and with such a sacrifice they become their work. Rothstein’s marriage is indeed a gamble, ‘For a guy who likes sure things, I was about to bet my life on a real long shot’. Rothstein rejoices in his expertise as a bookmaker, and so, the authenticity of his selfhood is compromised with this knowingly impetuous decision. Mad Men’s Don inhabits a world of myth. According to Roland Barthes, advertising itself is a myth, ‘1) Myth, close to what Durkheimian sociology calls a ‘collective representation’, can be read in the anonymous utterances of the press, advertising, mass consumer goods; it is something socially determined, a ‘reflection’’. (165). Don mythologises his family by using their photographs in his pitch for Kodak (S1, ep13). The images are indeed a ‘collective representation’, in which even Don’s understanding of them as a fabrication becomes dangerously distorted.

Don’s truly American desire for innocence deemed, ‘part of the national character’, (O’Connor, 21) also aggravates his lack of awareness. Like Bobbie, he is ‘being bad’, but unlike Bobbie, he refuses to acknowledge that he enjoys it. In Scorsese’s Casino, Rothstein advocates that Las Vegas is a ‘Morality Carwash’ in which all sin can be swept aside. In his mind, Don Draper visits this car wash every day, wiping the dirt of his affairs off his pristine Cadillac in an attempt to preserve the sanctity of his family. He preaches such a philosophy of denial to Peggy Olsen after the birth of her son, ‘This never happened. It will shock you, how much this never happened’. (S2, ep 5). It is only when Bobbie points out Don’s promiscuous reputation (‘you have lots of fans’, S2 , ep 6) that his self-imagined identity is shattered, and he retaliates leaving her tied up in a hotel room. Only then, and of course, in the domestic sphere of the Draper residence, do we see the duplicity of Don’s selfhood as the camera zooms in on his reflection, finally abandoning his physical form.

mad men shaving
Still from Mad Men. Lionsgate.

Needless to say, the camera invents this separation. This is an example of an occasional visual ‘sign’ in Mad Men which instructs meaning, but predominantly, in visual terms, the stylisation of the show is prioritised, undermining the attempt to critique. Homogenously, the authenticity of selfhood in Casino is sabotaged by the grotesque nature of its characters (which develops as they further masquerade in their lives), with Santoro’s white stripe of hair, Rothstein’s array of vibrantly coloured suits and oversized sunglasses, and Ginger’s chinchilla coats and changing hairstyles, stereotypically representing the trends of the late 70s/early 80s.

de niro
Still from Casino, Universal Pictures

Jean Baudrillard states, ‘it is myth that invades cinema as imaginary content. It is the golden age of despotic and legendary resurrections. Myth, chased from the real by the violence of history, finds refuge in cinema’. (43). As with the function of the Barthes myth, reality is emptied in Mad Men and Casino. Barthes explains the limitations of visuality, ‘we find ourselves immediately at the heart of the most important problem facing the semiology of images: can analogical representations (the ‘copy’) produce true systems of signs and not merely simple agglutinations of symbols?’. (32). Put differently, is meaning lost in something which is firstly, a ‘copy’, and secondly, overloaded with images like some kind of visual explosion? Subsequently, do we begin to immerse ourselves in this visual world of escapism?

‘…whatever in the past happens to have been of significance or value ought to be held in memory, insofar as that is possible, so that it can give us guidance. Then, too, nostalgia, reaction, and denial, all of which assume a meaningful sense of the past, are potent energies in any civilization at any time.’ (1998: Robinson, 5-6).

This escapism then, in Mad Men at least, becomes a nostalgia for something we never had in the first place. Robinson’s three components of the past are important as they all intertwine. This nostalgia for the 1960s is a reaction to the show, and also, a denial of who we are, and where we have come from. Life was not better then. For Baudrillard, ‘When the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning’. (6). The real is resculpted, masquerading in the form of glorious myth. Emerson considers such glorification, ‘Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence then this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and majesty of the soul’. (1171). Why do we doubt ourselves and glorify our predecessors? Baudrillard answers, ‘We require a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin, which reassures us about our end. Because finally we have never believed in them’. (10).

Such senseless and desperate nostalgia is even exhibited by the house itself whenever Ruthie sees her grandfather’s paintings on furniture in Housekeeping, ‘over the years the white paints had absorbed them, floated them up just beneath the surface’. (90). Additionally, they provoke a reaction from Ruth and Lucille, ‘the two cherubs who swam in ether’ (90). Will they embrace the hunting scene, or become the symbol of renewal, the peacock? The peacock cannot fly, limiting Ruthie’s evasion of ‘restrictive forces’, which prompt the masquerade. Throughout Casino, ‘back home’ is consistently referred to as some sort of parallel universe which Rothstein and Santoro have departed from. Santoro refers to ‘back home’ before he has even left, showing a denial of not only the past, but the present. Miles Orvell views our approach to authenticity in contemporary life thus, ‘We have a hunger for something like authenticity, but we are easily satisfied by an ersatz facsimile’. (xviii). Suddenly, ‘it is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real’. (Baudrillard, 2). We become the advert; we become the reflection. We are the masquerade; we are the myth, and unless we abandon civilisation, and its  ‘culture of the factitious’ (Orvell, xviii), there is nothing we can do about it. Emerson believes that, ‘Society never advances’. (1178). He describes it as a wave, which, ‘moves onward, but the water of which it is composed, does not’. (1178). Society cannot advance because no matter how much she masquerades or mythologises herself, America cannot escape her past, and notably this denies the American Adam. To conclude, Emerson states,

But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time. (1172).

The future is anticipated, or even feared. The past is worshipped through television shows like Mad Men. Whilst these two distractions dominate, the present suffers, and the impulse to seize the day is lost. The self cannot be found in the past. If the authentic stage we occupy (the present) cannot be embraced, the authentic self is surely obsolete.

 

 

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana Press, 1977.

—. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. London: Jonathan Cape, 1993.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. 1981. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Casino. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Universal, 1995. DVD.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance”.  The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol B. Ed. Nina Baym & Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2012. 270.

Lewis, R.W.B. The American Adam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Mad Men: Seasons 1&2. Created by Matthew Weiner. Perf. John Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser. Lionsgate, 2008. DVD.

O’Connor, William Van. The Grotesque: An American Genre and Other Essays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962.

Orvell, Miles. The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940. 1989.  North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Robinson, Marilynne. The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

—. Housekeeping. London: Faber & Faber, 1981.

Rothman, Hal K. “Colony, Capital, and Casino; Money in the Real Las Vegas.” The Grit beneath the Glitter: Tales from the Real Las Vegas, ed. Hal K. Rothman & Mike Davis. Berkley: University of California Press, 2002. 307.

Ryan, Maureen. “Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: The Subversive Narrative and the American Eye.” South Atlantic Review. Vol. 56, No.1 (January 1991): 79-86.

Wise, Gene. “”Paradigm Dramas” In American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement.” American Quarterly. Vol. 31, No.3 (1979) 310-312.

 

Photo credits:

1. Photo by Alan Sepinwall, ‘Mad Men, “Maidenform”: Reflections of the love you took from me’, www.nj.com.

2. Photo by luckystrike721, bamfstyle.wordpress.com.