Saturday, July 18, 2015

Go Kill A Watchman

If you haven't read the just-published Harper Lee novel Go Set A Watchman (a quasi-sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird), please listen to it first, specifically the spoken audio version read by Reese Witherspoon. This is a novel about what people think, not about what they do, and Reese really gets inside Jean Louise's head.
It seems most literary critics have rushed to express that Go Set A Watchman is an unworthy successor to To Kill a Mockingbird. I hope that you, as I, disregarded their self-appointed gatekeeper role and made up your own mind.

So you didn't like it? This suggests to me that:
  1. you can see only in black and white,
  2. you are an idol worshipper (whether it be Atticus Finch or Harper Lee),
  3. you need the approval of people "better" than you (such as literary critics),
  4. you love humanity but hate real humans.
  5. you find fiction and "literature" boring.
True confession. I was forced to read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and thought it was boring. The book went on and on about a child's thoughts, which I being recently a child myself was in no further need of. The movie was much better, but my teacher didn't want to hear that. I grew up in a liberal Catholic family in California, so it was fun to ridicule the South for its backward ways, but did Ms. Lee really need so many anecdotes of childhood? I could have summarized my view of the South much more succinctly: "You were wrong then, you're wrong now. You lost the war, get over it already!"

And then I grew up, went to U.C. Berkeley (a privilege that I as a smart white middle-class male accepted as birthright), and began to see things in color, grew fond of cognitive and moral dissonance, and was ready to have my idols upended. In 1986 I saw, and joined, young people rising up against old men accommodating apartheid in South Africa to maximize profits for employee pensions. The struggle had a wonderful Les Miserables quality to it, including the building and brief habitation of a shantytown in front of the administration building. In the end, we won (I mean of course that South Africans won), and we celebrated ourselves and indeed the old mens' pensions were perfectly fine -- they had lied to us, and respect for authority died a little after that. Sadly, the on-campus naval museum died too, apparently a victim to the self-righteous arrogation through arson of a few overzealous anarchists angry about the military's role in ROTC on campus. Respect for righteous indignation died a lot for me that day as well.

So where could Harper Lee have gone after Mockingbird? She could have published Watchman soon after Mockingbird, perhaps at the cost of her own fame, moral clarity, and effectiveness. But she did not. Some moral courage!

But then, where did we student protesters in the thousands go after "freeing South Africans from political bondage"? Certainly not to north Oakland to picket an unscrupulous nursing home sweatshop where workers were being paid less than minimum wage. Or I should say, at least the lucky ones...I and a handful of others not yet equipped to say no to a direct plea from moral authority to our moral superiority to do our moral duty found ourselves whisked away in a white van, and I was condemned to a hot afternoon pushing a large fat man in a wheelchair around in circles: he waved his sign and I pushed him uphill and braked downhill. I can no longer remember what the sign said, only that the man stank of ripe sweat and I consoled myself that since he was black, I could at least relieve myself of some white guilt I was feeling and hopefully get some Filipina caregivers a 50-cent raise. Sadly, as fate would have it, neither came to fruition. I did not feel more noble, and despised myself for wanting to. The workers did not get their raise. No media came to document the futility of our labor action, and no one wrote the Great American Screenplay where Gregory Peck played me playing Norma Rae. Real life has a remarkably unromantic and mundane quality to it.

Still, I was stubborn and unwilling to let go of the dream, so I went into the Peace Corps upon graduation and lived two years in the Central African Republic, where my students still stank of ripened sweat, I grew even more cynical, and left no lasting legacy: instead of the neocolonial subjugation they enjoyed when I was there, they now have machetes and religious war. As yet I have not been called to write the Great American Novel about my time there. What I had was better than fiction because I lived it, but I cannot share it with others because I have not learned from it anything worth sharing.

But Harper Lee has. Go Set a Watchman is not a Great novel, but it is a good one, with good people with good intentions, perceived grievances, and self delusions struggling to be moral individuals in a world that prefers group labels. The prose is sufficiently rough and at times wordy that we can dispense with the straitjacket of author worship. Atticus finally gets the right to a third dimension. The black characters can stop stepping-to, because (being written from a white point of view) they have almost no presence anyway. Even in its boldness, the novel is racially self-serving, but at least white readers are well served.

By which I mean that Harper Lee gave me a fleeting chance to experience the dissonance of knowing that white privilege is loathsome and in any case unsustainable, yet somehow wanting to mourn its loss. It is an uncomfortable feeling which maybe I brought to the book myself, so your mileage may vary. Thanks to a novel written 40 years ago, I finally have a clue why the Tea Party lives on and has staying power, and how people saying overtly racist things about President Obama seem earnest in professing that it's not about his race. Indeed it is not about his race: it is about their race, and the intersection of race and identity cannot be understood unless at some point you are willing to temporarily accept its validity and empathize with hate dressed up as victimization and animated by fear and loss. The sandbox of fiction in Watchman gave me enough permission to do this where I would not in real life.

For moral answers, I will always have Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, but to form moral questions I prefer Watchman and Billy Budd. I still don't like literature, but it seems to like me.