Sunday, March 15, 2009

Addendum to Ed

For Maria's, tomorrow night...on the heels of my "Woman Thing" regarding the dude...

Addendum to Ed.
Back in the day when I used to teach college (a whole two years ago), a class called Human Heritage occupied much of my time. I loved this class. In academic-speak, it approached the human question from “critical multiculturalism” and asked students to examine the Western experience against those of Native America and bits and pieces of China. Where to start with a course like that, you might ask? Answer: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Now, if you haven’t read this book, go read it. But if you’ve seen Apocalypse Now, you have some idea what the book is about, and if you haven’t seen it, you can go rent it tonight when you get done with this little soiree and educate yourself.
Heart of Darkness was published in 1901 by a Polish guy living in England. He was a European seriously worried that when white people got too far away from civilization, they began to rot to the core. Conrad’s Kurtz was such a piece of rot – a champion ivory trader in the Belgian Congo (and therefore champion colonialist) who got too far upriver for his own good and became wholly given over to evil. The book is usually touted as one of the world’s best exposes on the nature of said evil, and indeed it is.
So what does this have to do with Ed, you might ask, and the Woman Thing? Well, here’s the deal. We’d be reading along, the students and I, and then the course syllabus would throw Chinua Achebe into the works. Achebe, the acclaimed Nigerian novelist, said: Wait a minute, White Boys. This is the most racist piece of crap I have ever read. Ok, maybe he wasn’t THAT virulent, but he was rightly incensed at Conrad’s portrayal – or lack thereof – of black Africans, and the fact that no other scholar had noticed this before. African natives were either savages or non-existent, basically, and served as sinister props (drums at night emitting from the dense banks of the Congo, arrows killing the boat pilot flying out of nowhere, patsies to Kurtz’ killings) to the very erosion of civilization Conrad so feared.
Given this, I would ask my students, does this in turn erode the impact of Conrad’s work, its greatness? Some said yes, others said no. I find myself at a similar crossroads with Abbey.
Abbey, like Conrad, was what they call “a man of his time.” And men of mid-20th century ilk were rather unfortunate in their understanding of both women and Native Americans (Abbey has not fared well in that category, either, people). Granted, he was a hell of a lot better than Conrad, for whom women were utterly useless and sexless – unless, of course, they were African, in which case they were the clearly sexual concubines of Kurtz. But let me be clear: Abbey, as with most men of his generation, is in some sense the direct descendent of Conrad. This will make the Abbey-ites in the room shudder. Abbey was a rebel! They’ll shriek. Conrad, after all, was urgently arguing for maintaining a certain status quo! Abbey said: Get the hell out of civilization! Conrad said: Get back in it! But their work supersedes who they were as men, methinks.
In my first piece, I wrote of Abbey as a man. And he was a mixed bag. And this makes me suspicious of him. But I’ve been noticing, lately, just how far-reaching his impact has been, and how he really started a whole movement in this neck of the woods (and elsewhere), and how, like Conrad, he has really made us look at ourselves, be it in the context of his own biases or in the context of ours. And the truth is, what he had to say not only survived those biases but became even more relevant – grew, in fact – with the changing of the times. So just as Conrad can be re-written as a post-modern Vietnam fable of just how corrupting so-called civilization had become in Apocalypse Now, so Abbey can morph into a movement that in fact now does treat both the Earth and women a bit better, and where myth and history do in fact blur a bit, and where nature writing – once called “The autobiography of grief” – tells a damn sad and true tale of the enormity of what we have lost and may lose more of. So, however a classic gets formed, and whatever a classic is, I think Ed fits. Turns out his “theme” – righteous anger in the face of utter destruction of our one and only home – is a bit universal. And so, I place him next to Conrad, in all my feminist consciousness, and all his Monkey Wrench masculinity and furor.
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