On Columbus Day

Columbus Day was upon us two days ago, celebrating the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the “New World” and there’s been some good backlash against it. Now, let me say that I think it’s well deserved: there’s very little in Columbus himself that we should be celebrating, and there’s a deeply unhappy strain of racism, white supremacism, and lack of historical consciousness in a blanket celebration of the so-called discovery of America. But, and this is where it becomes more complicated, the solutions offered by some this year seem to be well-intentioned enough, but similarly problematical. The Guardian‘s James Nevius notes that Columbus was a lost sadist, and he’s certainly correct. But here’s his counteroffer:

Rather than a holiday celebrating one man, let’s have a day where every local community celebrates the native cultures connected to that locale. In New York, we could honor the Algonquin-speaking Lenape; in Utah, there could be a festival for their namesake Utes; in the Dakotas, a celebration of the Sioux, while at the same time recognizing the plight of many Indians on reservations.

It seems a natural substitution from conqueror to conquered, but it’s similarly irrational, and somewhat random. There is no denying the plight of Native Americans on reservations today, and we would do well to recognize it (and even better to do something about it that’s not merely symbolic); but what would be the point of celebrating, instead of single people, entire, complex, often largely unknown cultures, on the basis that they used to be where we are now? Not, to be sure, remember them, investigate them, and discuss the way they came to an end, but to celebrate them? For one thing, what about these cultures should be celebrated? The Ute were, among other things, a warrior culture, as were the Sioux – but I don’t suppose we are meant to celebrate their version of tribal warfare? And though Nevius doesn’t mention them, for the Iroquois, as Daniel Barr has shown,

War represented a many-sided expression of their world view, a complex, vital component of Iroquois culture that was at times an almost daily part of their lives. (Unconquered, xv)

Do we celebrate this part of Iroquois heritage? I doubt that we should. And that is the problem: the proposal is nonsensical because it rightly condemns one undifferentiated world view (Columbus “discovered” the New World for Europeans) with another one: all Native American heritage should be celebrated. But to substitute the blanket celebration of complex cultures for Columbus is banal and knee-jerk, and does no one justice; substitute celebration instead, as Nevius does in describing Columbus, with historical discussion; in lieu of celebration, highlight this discussion, historical awareness, and a measured analysis of all the consequences of the momentous events of October 12, 1492. You’d be doing Native Americans a favor, and you’d still get to dismantle the idealized Columbus of yore.


On Jonathan Franzen’s Purity

The Nation‘s Jon Baskin offers a perceptive review of Jonathan Franzen’s latest whopper, Purity, which I’m still in the process of reading (it’s a bit of a slog). I’m very happy, given all the praise that Freedom received, that (in passing), he just calls what it is: a “very bad novel.” Purity, as far as I can tell so far, is (as a novel), also very bad…

The New Republic Lets Talk About Genre

The New Republics online version has just published a chat between Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman on the topic of fantasy fiction. Because I’m in the process of publishing a book on the contemporary novel’s uses of genre, I was quite intrigued. Some good points made here by both, especially on the relationship between publishers’ decisions and author’s positions on the question of what “genre” means.

Breaking the Boundaries Between Fantasy and Literary Fiction (June 7)

Who’s Still Doing Close Reading? Scientology, That’s Who!

Reading (in my copious spare time) Lawrence Wright’s history of Scientology, Going Clear, I’m struck by this theoretical gem:

Wright is speaking here of Scientology’s educational principles:

“The ‘Undefined Word’—the third and most important principle—occurs when the student tries to absorb material while bypassing the definition of the words employed. “THE ONLY REASON A PERSON GIVES UP A STUDY OR BECOMES CONFUSED OR UNABLE TO LEARN IS BECAUSE HE HAS GONE PAST A WORD THAT WAS NOT UNDERSTOOD,” Hubbard emphasizes in one of his chiding technical bulletins. “WORDS SOMETIMES HAVE DIFFERENT OR MORE THAN ONE MEANING.” […] The solution is to have a large dictionary at hand, preferably one with lots of pictures in it. […] The need to understand the meaning of words, Hubbard writes, “is a sweepingly fantastic discovery in the field of education and don’t neglect it. [my emphasis; Kindle loc. 3810—hey, sue me, I haven’t got the shelf space!]

You better pay close attention here: words may mean different things, and often more than one. I’m not sure it requires access to the mysteries of the universe, really, but it’s true nonetheless, and that’s a useful start. And because it’s true, you should read carefully, elsewise you may not understand things—and then, you should go back, and re-read. It’s not exactly close reading, but it’s certainly closer reading than some people are doing.

So there, folks. Not only does close(r) reading help you understand literature, but it’ll also help you become an Operating Thetan. Not too shabby. Though I suppose that getting at a useful interpretation of William Faulkner is going to be more helpful than going clear…