Sunday 2 August 2015

“Be Yourself!” Is This Really Good Advice?

I’m not sure telling people to be themselves is good advice, but my saying so never seemed to have much purchase with undergraduates in my Intro to Lit course.   The sadist, the homicidal maniac, the pedophile--aren’t they “being themselves” when they commit their crimes?  Shouldn’t we tell people, and ourselves, to “be better”?

The context of the discussion was H.G. Well’s short story, “The Country of the Blind.”  Nunez, a mountain climber in the Andes, tumbles in an avalanche into the Country of the Blind--a society cut off from the world for over 14 generations which has adapted to the fact that everyone living there is blind.  The concept and all memory of sight have disappeared.  Nunez struggles and fails to explain to the people that he is a superior being because he can see.  They perceive him as inferior, unformed, a missing link in the evolutionary chain stricken with occasional delusions and bouts of violent madness. Nonetheless this world is prepared to offer him an idyllic life, peace, sustenance, acceptance, the requited love of a beautiful woman, but in exchange Nunez must agree to surrender his eyes (which doctors have concluded are tumors causing his madness). 

The story is an allegory of cultural blindness; my challenge to students was always to recognize the various perspectives from which the allegory might be applied.  In general, students were a bit too quick to condemn the people of the Country of the Blind for their refusal to “see” beyond their own culture.  Some students remained adamant in their refusal to abandon this position, insisting that the story should be viewed from only one perspective, that of Nunez looking down on the inferiority of the Country of the Blind. 

In the face of this conviction, I pointed out some of the merit of this position.  The Nunez story was typical in our time:  an immigrant arrives in a new culture bringing with her the baggage of her own culture and a host of superior skills associated with that culture.  We, the receiving, settler culture, having been in place for generations, are the people of the Country of the Blind.  

For some students this is a tough pill to swallow, but I invite them to consider how we would react as individuals and as a society if someone ragged, ill-kempt, poorly spoken and perceptibly alien aggressively insisted that he was superior, explaining this superiority with words that had no meaning to us.  Our prisons, asylums, homeless shelters and streets are filled with such people. 

It was fairly easy to win a few adherents to this perspective.  For students who have lived the immigrant experience the allegory was beyond obvious.  For others I invited them to generalize the experience imagining that they brought skills, talents and abilities to a new social group, and think about how quickly and easily any social group (club, team, neighbourhood, school, peer group, etc) would be to accept a new member expecting to be ”king.”  (Nunez’s mantra in the story is “In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king”).  Above  all we expect immigrants and newbies to be humble in fact and manner.

And so the discussion progressed, with students slowly, tentatively approaching the realization that we are all culturally blind.  We all view our own culture not only as what is best but what is normal, real, and paradoxically “natural.”  The one culture that we can never see clearly is our own.  Trying to understand your own culture is like a fish trying to understand water.

As we reached the end of the story, I would hit a wall.  In the final line of the story it appears that Nunez commits suicide rather than surrender his sight.  (In fact, a coherent and typical reading of the story is that Nunez does not survive the avalanche at the opening of the story, and the entire narrative is his imaginings in the moments before death.  This is an interpretation that I never presented or pursued for the simple reason that it would preempt much of the productive exchange that the story provokes.)

When I criticized and even mocked Nunez’s apparent suicide, the backlash response from students was tidal:  “he was being true to himself,” “true to who he was,”  “true to his beliefs and principles,” “true to what he loved and found beautiful--seeing,” “he was refusing to give up who he was,”  “he was being himself!”  Yeah, maybe!

In the first place I wasn’t going to surrender to a romantic advocation of suicide (see Do No Harm).  In passing I would mention that the child psychologist Piaget defined intelligence as the ability to adapt.  Then I would underline the illogic of Nunez’s apparent decision to choose “seeing” over “living”--a decision that was neither intelligent nor admirable.  Finally, I would point out that advocating Nunez’s decision was an example of cultural blindness--that we live in a visual culture, one that emphasizes and exaggerates the importance of seeing (see Ong, Havelock, McLuhan and Falling in Love is Unprofessional) and like Nunez we fail to “see” beyond the visual culture that we have come to accept as no less than life itself.

To further the point, I would typically bookend the course with Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Who Am I this Time?” collected in the anthology Welcome to the Monkey House

The satiric short story was adapted into the made-for-TV romantic comedy on PBS, also called  ”Who Am I this Time?”  The story focusses on a young couple who defy “being themselves” by finding happiness in acting and playing roles with one another.  

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