Sunday, 16 January 2011

Diet of words

I'm in a terrible hurry, so only have a few minutes to digest a couple of things with you.

This puts me squarely in the category "overfed information junkie" for a thinker like Alain de Botton, who's been delivering Point of View on Radio 4.

I've heard a couple of these so far. In the first, he argued that humanities teaching in British universities is culturally bankrupt; in the second that everyone else is. I was kind of cross about the first perspective, given how much of my life I gave to trying to help students think clearly, simply and forcefully about works of difficult literature. But I agree with the second perspective, because I find myself swimming about in it these days, running between pointless meetings, unable to research ideas in any depth, and overwhelmed by the number of books I 'ought' to have read, or be reading (quite apart from the cultural events that I never now see).

I agree with him on the notion that we are bulimics of culture: under-nourished because we're on permanent junk-book diets, and unable to take on what is truly nourishing about high art, because this essentially means essences -- eternal truths. The kinds of things, in fact, that universities have been deconstructing since the 1960s, suspicious of the provenance and authority of 'the eternal'.

Alain makes an astute comparison with the repeated rituals of organized religion, which decrees that we will reflect on the same idea, at the same time, on the same day, each year, with a group of others. He points out that there is no such communal system available for literature, and that the mass production of books has devalued the Book as precious object; dehumanizing it, and draining out what is valuable about the act of reading or thinking through this technological and economic facility: if a book is cheap, this cheapens its contents by transposed attribute.

The second point I am rushing to make, that runs across the first, is about an article I read last night from the Wall Street Journal, that is busily going viral at the moment.

will take you to an amazing piece of polemic, describing the life and work of a so-called Chinese Mother, in her own words. Apparently to be one of these high achievers, you need to prevent your child from doing anything that doesn't directly contribute to the achievement you have decreed for him or her. This means none of the social activities children usually do, but also enforced practice of the discipline in which the child will excel, and punishment and disapproval expressed in the most emotive terms for any falling short.

The article is so extreme that it seems at times like a parody of itself. Can this mother be serious? She mocks 'self-esteem' as a notion, seeing children as extensions of parental ambition, and she asserts this proudly, seeing nothing wrong with it. She is surprised, in a detached way, when her methods lead to her being ostracized by her social circle.

At first it was easy to see this as ridiculous, and to laugh at it. But then I found myself realizing I felt angry, because it is so unacceptable in Western society to be open about the competitiveness of raising children. We all know that, behind closed doors, mothers and fathers are pushing their children to succeed at any cost ... and withholding affection from them if they do not attain the high standards parents want for them -- out of love, fear, and their own dashed hopes. We will never admit it openly. It is unacceptable to discuss this emotional battle, just as naked competitiveness is frowned on about one's own ambitions. We are allowed to be self-deprecating, but we are not allowed to punish our children if they don't achieve straight As across the board.

What the Chinese Mother appears to say is: "forget ambivalence, and what others think. Forget social consensus. The world will eat us up: arm your children." I can't bear to think that this is all life is, and so I stepped out of the humanities university world that had turned my passions into drudgery and rote. But in the world outside the ivory towers, there is such a mess of illusions and mistaken identities, appearance replacing reality, that it is hard to keep my head above water, and hang on to the values that the literature I love gave me.

I have left the world that Alain de Botton would like us to live in -- because I discovered that it didn't exist in university life, or not any more, and I inhabit a world gone mad, in which it is virtually impossible to live one's life by a firm moral code, or by personal beliefs, and in which one is exposed to the extremity of sociopathic parenting opinions, because they make a good story.

Finally, I've been wanting to talk about The Help (Catherine Stockett). A huge bestseller in the States, this is a novel about black servants in the deep South of America, in 1962, at a fulcrum point between segregation and enfranchisement. It's a great page-turner, and well written. There is the white outsider, a woman too tall to marry and integrate easily into the society on offer to her. And there are the intelligent, fierce and watchful helps, whose insights into the real workings of the families they work for reveal that segregation permeates every aspect of Southern society. It separates friends from each other, husbands from wives, mothers from children. Everyone lives segregated lives if segregation obtains, even its purported winners.

Over the course of the novel, everything goes as it should: we are served a tale of heroic secrecy, the gradual collation of the stories of a group of helps, who tell all to the white woman. She in turn is able to get a foot on the publishing ladder when this collection of stories is turned into a book. One of the helps looks as though she will be able to earn her living as a writer. Another wins herself permanent employment because of her heroism. The bully who has been determined to enforce racism by fair means or foul looks as though her power is about to evaporate. The book of tales ruptures the hermetic claustrophobia of Jackson, Mississippi, and by the end of what we read, it looks as though the old system is going to crumble and give way to newly enlightened times. Perfect. Everyone's a winner.

We discussed this book at my book club, which was very enjoyable, and wine-filled. Lovely. But when I left I found myself thinking about all the Helps I have needed since having children, from all the corners of the globe except from Britain itself. The only person who has ever let me down over childcare was English. I have been fantastically lucky to meet some wonderful women over the last seven years.

But when these same women, who have more than helped me raise our children, have come to have their own, one universal experience has chilled me. Every single one of them has been treated like dirt at the hands of the NHS. During birth, they have all been belittled and ignored. One suffered traumatic post-natal mistakes and repeated surgery because no one listened to her. The one common denominator has been their non-Englishness.

Alain de Botton thinks we miss the point of what great art has to tell us about eternal truths because we are too busy, and because there is no communal place to discuss it. But there I was, in a book club, talking to mothers about a book on raising other people's children. We weren't sure whether The Help was really literature. We didn't notice that the situation in the deep South in 1962 still goes on -- immigrants raise Western women's children, and are not themselves treated equally. We missed the point, but we also got it. We were at least together trying -- to read and think together, despite how strange and difficult it is, despite having absolutely no time to call our own, despite the massive competition and insecurity that saturates our society. We were trying.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Immigrants raise Western women's children"
Really, Ingrid?