Wednesday, 24 November 2010

De-gentrifying Humanism

What began in my mind as a panic over the sudden decline in English majors has morphed into dissatisfaction with what we think and do under the rubric “Humanism”. As I began graduate studies in 1949, C.P. Snow was waging his one man rebellion known as The Two Cultures controversy. As a radar tech in the Navy I had earned a new respect for industrial technology that my Catholic upbringing ignored completely. So though eager to become a professional humanist, I became increasingly skeptical over the evident narrow-mindedness of many of my humanist professors, except for Mortimer Kadish’s lectures on logical positivism which erased completely in one semester my Thomist training.

Indeed, my interdisciplinary Ph.D. in American Culture demanded a broader definition of the humanities. I learned that this “new specialty” derived from Harvard’s celebration of its tercentenary in 1936. American Lit was a many faceted reality: Theology in the seventeenth century, Politics in the eighteenth, and not Belles Lettres until the mid-nineteenth. So my five “fields” were Am Lit, beginnings to the Civil War, Civil War to the present, American philosophy and its European antecedents, American economic history, and American art and architecture. When I asked to write my dissertation on Marshall McLuhan, they balked. Who, he? They puzzled. So I wrote on John Fiske, the popularizer of Charles Darwin. I was beginning to take the Science side in the C.P.Snow debate.

As a teacher, I added Afro-American first, then Appalachian lit, and after two revealing experiences (in 1964, the first African Arts Festival in Dakar, where I met Langston Hughes and Wole Soyinka, and in 1968 at the Commonwealth Education Conference, I lobbied for each Commonwealth country to do a film on their own lit like “Nigeria: Culture in Transition” mc-ed by Soyinka. In 1970 I tried out the concept of “International English” on Rex Nettleford in Jamaica. He dug it. As did Seamus Heaney and Michael Harper in 1978 at a seminar in Philly.

Everyone except the editor of Canadian Commonwealth Lit journal, who smelled the CIA! What a laugh! Flogging IE in London the summer of 1978, I founded the Centre for Internationalizing English with the 150G’s my father left me in 1977. Its mock heroic goal was to undermine the CIA with IE poetry! It engaged in feats like renewing Walt Whitman's falling apart mausoleum in Camden and celebrating Emily Dickinson’s 150th birthday in 1980 with a glorious arts festival, during which we faithfully read all 1775 of her poems, night and day! My filmmaking son Michael took over the floundering foundation when I abandoned teaching in 1982 for freelancing worldwide, always alert to IE works and pomps.

Which brings me to my latest discovery, Ethiopian journalist Dinaw Mengestu's glorious first novel, ”The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” (the title quotes Dante emerging from Hell) Riverhead, 2007. He wrote it the lee of researching a piece for “Rolling Stone” on Darfur. Its hero Sepha Stephanus, fled from Ethiopia after his father was abused by the Reds taking over his country. Mengestu actually left that beleaguered country with his mother and sister aged two in 1980. Went to Georgetown, took an MFA in fiction, and started freelancing abroad.

“Beautiful” centers around a trio (an engineer, a waiter, and the hero) who have left different African countries) who deal with their loneliness and isolation by meeting at the hero’s grocery store in a black rundown section in D.C. They play a parlor game they have invented to dull their pains of isolation, in which one cites an obscure African dictator and his pals must name the country and the date of his takeover. Judith, an American political history professor separated from her African husband, and her biracial teen Naomi, moves in next door, and an off and on relationship never matures, try as they awfully awkwardly do.

Meanwhile, white gentry start remodeling the rundown neighborhood houses, to which the poor American blacks mount a terrorist campaign to run the new rich out. We have a new IE subgenre: Africans interacting with white and black Americans. As it is, there is no dearth of Asian fiction in America and abroad. Think of Amy Tan. Nor no shortage of white and black Africans commenting on lives in Africa. Think Nadine Gordimer and Chinua Achebe. So Mengestu alerts us to a new slot in IE. He has just made the New Yorker 20 under 40 category in 2010. And the way he weaves writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson and DeToqueville into the narratives of isolation and conflict is astonishing.

Alas, Mengestu, tapped out psychically by his Darfur assignment, has moved to Paris with his wife and son. Where I am sure we’ll eventually learn how he relates to Europeans, a talent we Americans could cultivate. Which brings me to my conviction: our humanism must be future-oriented. We must think of humanism as a vade mecum for globalization. When Thomas Friedman writes today in the New York Times about telephone start ups in India that allow the poor to send money home or to bank it, we are talking humanism. Whatever makes people more ethical and independent is humanistic. So a university cancels a French department? Or English Ph.D.’s.

The issue is not majors. The issue is what facilitates our understanding the complexities of the future we’re all facing. Much of that needed knowledge is science based. Humanists must vow like Louie Kahn did in his library for the Salk Center for Biological Sciences in California: He made it so humanists and scientists must mingle! When I finally got out to see the Salk, I stopped the first white jacketed lab coat to see if Kahn’s dream prevailed. “Until Bronowsky died” was the swift reply. The Jew who ran BBC’s documentary division genially harassed JB telling him it was his mitzvah to learn how to narrate documentaries. He did. Because he was the ideal humanistic scientist.

The future IE curriculum will be as much science as art. No humanism without the two, fused! Past-oriented humanistic study is gentrified humanism. It gives the “well-educated” a sense of superiority to the underclasses. But I argue the only legitimate humanism is not about glorying over the past. It’s about making the future genuinely humane for everyone. The rest is mere snobbery.

Mengestu saw that so clearly in his describing how the superficially humanistic went about dealing with gentrifying the Logan Circle neighbourhood in D.C. I want the next generation of English majors thrilling, as I’ve just learned to do, at Penn’s Patrick McGowan’s discerning what they drank at King Midas’s Funeral. Whatever honors man’s greatest gift, his reason, disciplined, is Humanism. Otherwise, mere gentrification.

This piece also appears in Broad Street Review.

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