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Friday, March 6, 2009

Anyone or Everyone (on Russell Banks's Dreaming Up America)

Russell Banks Dreaming Up America (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008)

In his first book of non-fiction prose, acclaimed American novelist Russell Banks takes on the daunting task of defining what it is to be an American—how our country came into being, how we perceive ourselves and how we define our dreams and aspirations, all directed to a French audience in the form of a film by Jean-Michel Meurice and, now, published as a transcription of his comments in Banks's own country.

Although I have attempted to tackle some of these same issues in a few of the essays of My Year, Banks is a far braver man than I; I am certain that had I been asked to do the same, I would have demurred. For how does one speak as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant for a nation which Banks himself describes as a "Creole" culture from its earliest days, with its vast displacement of Native Americans and its endless waves of immigrant populations beginning with the Africans, who Banks, correctly I think, refuses to describe simply as descendants of slaves. And then, of course, there are those generations upon generations of German, French, Dutch, Scandinavian, Irish, Spanish, Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and vast ethnic populations Banks does not even mention such as the Russians, Armenians, and Persians (who are represented by large populations in my home city of Los Angeles)—all of whom are portrayed in popular thinking as having merged and embedded their cultural identities within the larger whole. Even in these cultural heritages Banks mistakenly combines religious groupings (describing Jews as a single cultural entity—tell that to Jewish citizens from Germany, Poland, Iran, and Ethiopia) and heaping all immigrants from Arabic-speaking countries into a single whole he describes as Arabs (let us just mention not only the differences between Arab-speaking people of different countries, but the radical separations between Sunis and Sufis). One might as easily declare that to be an American is be anyone from nowhere—or everyone from everywhere, depending upon your point of view.

But to be fair, this is not an historian's essay, let alone a coherent political commentary, but rather an intelligent artist's perspective of what it means to be from the USA. And from this perspective Banks presents a fairly credible and often fascinating discussion of our inherent successes and failures as a culture.

Note that I do not use the word "country." Banks argues, rather convincingly, that when our nationalist tendencies show their ugly heads, they are often directly in opposition to our founding members' philosophical viewpoint.

Banks argues that three major strands of American ambitions are evident in the first European settlers of the continent: in New England the English settlers' religious dreams of the "City on the Hill," the Dutch and French desires for commercial and trading success, the Spanish wishes for wealth mythologized in Cortez's and Pissaro's "City of Gold," and the dreams of Ponce de Leon for a "Fountain of Youth," ambitions that gradually were interwoven to express the current American Dream, a hope for religious purity and freedom of expression, our attempts to attain wealth, and our belief in the possibility of making a new life, of starting over again. Yet these three strands of the American Dream also pull us in different directions and often play out our destinies in opposition to one another such as our Civil War, which pitted our striving for wealth against the moral and spiritual opposition to slavery.

Banks also points to the basic hypocrisy of our values; while seeking a "City on the Hill," a moral ground that permitted freedom of expression, we simultaneously failed to recognize any rights for those that were here before us and had tended the new world which the immigrants now felt was rightfully theirs to settle and develop, to move ever forward with soldiers and fortresses followed by the settlers themselves who took over Indian lands, dividing them up into farms and ranches. Accordingly, Banks insists, racism was at the very heart of the developing nation from its inception—an issue with which (and even despite our joyful embracement of our first Black president) we have still not completely come to terms.

What set this new nation apart from other countries, however, was the radical embracement of democracy and, in particular, its Enlightenment leaders (Washington, Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, and others) who in documents such as the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution spoke in a loftiness of ideas that embraced not just its voting citizens (Blacks and women, we are reminded, not among them) but all of mankind. These "sacred documents," as Black novelist Ralph Ellison has described them, gave rights even to those who did not yet have them, and had important consequences that even the founding fathers might never have imagine.

As Banks writes of the Constitution:

It's fascinating to contrast the United States Constitution with the constitutions
of our individual fifty states. Each state has its own constitution, usually a
litany of laws. It's the same with most national constitutions—the new constitution
of Iraq, or the French Constitution, for example. They're deliberately oriented
to a specific people, place, and time. But the American Declaration of Independence
has a poetic loftiness that universalizes its ambitions. It speaks of mankind as much
as Americans. And the institutions laid out in the American Constitution are so
decorously balanced that it manages to universalize our country's political
structure, too. Both of our founding documents really are extraordinary acts of
creative genius.

Yet those pulls that Banks spoke of earlier often contorted and twisted those sacred texts, particularly given the enormous powers of the American presidents, that could work for the good of the American populace (Banks predictably mentions Franklin D. Roosevelt) or could push the country in the direction of a self-deluded people who regularly commit genocide in the name of "Civilization, Christianity and Capitalism." As he quotes D. H. Lawrence: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer."

The author of Dreaming Up America is particularly critical of how through some of our technological advances such as television we have turned our economic interests—that search for "The City of Gold"—upon our own citizens, inviting the salesman, who we once kept at the door, not only into our living rooms, but into our children's bedrooms:

We've colonized our own children. Having run out of people on the planet
to colonize, run out of people who can't distinguish between beads and
trinkets and something of value, having found ourselves no longer able to
swap some beads and axes for Manhattan Island, we've ended up colonizing
our own children. ...The old sow is eating its own farrow.

I wonder, however, just how gullible our own children truly are. I recall that when I was a grade schooler, presenting a school-play with another young boy satirizing the endless advertisements we had heard over and over again on both radio and television in its earliest days. Perhaps our children, having encountered thousands and thousands of such ads, may not be quite as naive regarding the market as we imagine. Rather, I would argue that the greater danger lay in the programming itself, in the empty narratives of television productions and news reporting. When that emptiness is presented as reality, it contorts the minds not just of our children but of adults as well.

Nonetheless, we can well understand Banks's fears. And with the author we wonder where this homicidal sickness caused by the "conflict of our material goals and our spiritual justifications..." will lead us. That, Banks appears to argue, depends of what we make of ourselves, on how we comprehend that despite our commitment to this particular nation, we have, as individuals, not truly been melted down in some metaphorical pot, but are still each different from one other while sharing similar ambitions and goals. We are not anyone, but everyone from everywhere, a truly universal force; and in that fact lies our strength and our ability to renew ourselves and our country.

New York City, January 17, 2009

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