Illicit/Impossible: Romantic Neuroses and History

History isn’t always what is convenient, comfortable, or acceptable to us, as I’m reminded reading this article sent to me by my friend John Wendel, about what’s going on at Thomas Jefferson’s old estate, Monticello. Here’s a snippet:

The country has been fascinated for the better part of two centuries with the question of whether Jefferson followed his father-in-law’s example and fathered children by Elizabeth’s daughter, Sally. Leading historians who doubted this have done an about-face since genetic evidence linked Jefferson to one Hemings child. There is a growing consensus that Jefferson fathered most, if not all, of Sally’s children, just as Madison Hemings claimed in a now-famous newspaper interview published in 1873.

The emergence of the genetic evidence has shown historians who believed otherwise that the black oral tradition is sometimes more reliable than the official “white” version of history. It has also cleared the way for us to focus on the wider Hemings clan and the hundreds of other slaves who passed through Jefferson’s plantation.

What’s interesting to me about this is that it’s not only completely unreasonable to think this, sight unseen, unthinkable, but also that it’s quite ridiculous to do so on the grounds that one finds, or in one’s culture it is traditionally found, “miscegenation” to be unpalatable. History is absolutely full of examples, not only from dating back to the earliest writings of American ex-slaves, but also much farther back to ancient times.

Here’s another example of the unpalatability of history. I was watching the downright pitiful movie Battlefield Earth today, and there is a great deal of mockery done by the Pscyhlones in the movie… Psychlones are always laughing at the ridiculousness of the idea that humans could ever fight back against them and their colonial establishment. (In fact, this week has been bad SF movie week for me, and there’s a similar, if slightly more comic, take on the way the apes in Planet of the Apes view their human vassals… “Apes in cages? Yeeeeeah, right,” says one ape when hearing of our world.)

The offense is greater in Battlefield Earth, however. The absolute unimaginativeness of the whole story (and this should rightly be blamed on its ridiculous author, L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Scientology religion) is more grievously apparent in the modus operandi of his aliens. Not only are the humanoid, but worse still they’re basically human. Their jokes are scrutable, once translated. Their politics are basically cartoon Machiavellianism. Their species-ist attitudes toward humans are sadly similar to human racism. Even their sexuality is basically human.

Aside from the sexuality thing, I think I have seen more incomprehensible or, to me, alien, thinking and behaviour from other people in Korea than in any given moment in the movie.

This is illustrative of the fictional boundaries we set up for ourselves, the limits we put on the world. In a crap movie like Battlefield Earth, of course, the boundaries are written in cheap yellow high-lighter marker. Still, the striking thing is, we do this everyday with other people, too.

When some of my female students heard a rumor about one of my fellow teachers having a girlfriend who had given him a Korean phrasebook with amusing sex-related phrases (presumably for memorization), they leapt to the conclusion (not unreasonable, though not necessarily valid) that the couple was sexually active, and they were shocked. Why they should be shocked at this is beyond me, since I know for a fact plenty of young Korean couples are also quite sexually active, even those who are publicly quite Christian and deferential to parents and so on. This is the reality of Korean sexual life, and it’s an open secret, meaning anyone who wants to know about it, does.

What shocked me, though, was not how shocked my friends were that this couple didn’t follow the public Korean norms when in a private space. What shocked me was the stubbornness to which they clung to the idea that premarital sex was not only bad, but also shocking and unusual and some reflection on the moral virtue of the girl. (I didn’t know she was that kind of a girl, one woman said in a hushed, horrified tone.) And, mind you, all of this was from the mention of a book exchanging hands, not even mention of actual sex… that, you see, was just assumed.

Which is what is the puzzling thing about this. If it really were shocking for a couple to have sex, the giving of that book would mean nothing. But it didn’t… it was rather laden with meaning, potential and actual, and the meanings that the book bore for other people also deeply reflected their own, let’s say, hangups and anxieties about sexuality and sexual life. Let me restate this: it wasn’t a discussion about how this man and woman engage in bondage, or have sex with animals… it was about the woman giving the man a (rather hilarious) phrasebook of sex-related phrases.

How this relates to Jefferson is a little bit roundabout, but what I am suggesting is probably not new. It was in fact I am almost certain stated by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, actually, and what it is, concisely, is this: that a kind of perverse attraction — perverse because desperately sublimated — is transformed into horror at the beholding of something which one is not supposed to be attracted to. That isn’t just to say white conservative Americans secretly lust for the joys of illicit miscegenation. It’s to say that the fascination of a “miscegenate” nation, including the implication of one of the fathers of the nation’s political tradition and philosophy, is fascinating because it’s illicit, is also illicit because it’s downright fascinating. And why is it? I have no idea, of course, because I have grown up in a race-conscious world, but not one where the socioeconomic boundaries are so clearly lined up with race. In the little towns where I lived, there were dirt-poor white kids and Indian kids (and a few black kids) living in nice houses. Sure, the Indian kids were poorer on average, but there was never a ban on “mescegenation”, really, none that I explicitly experienced. Most people I knew as a kid were Metis, after all: half-French and half-Indian.

(My sisters’ experiences may differ. One sister freaked out when I described her (elementary school) boyfriend as, “That black kid who lives down the street.” For her the word seemed to bear a judgment, where for me it is was just a useful description.)

The fact that this thing about miscegenation, however, could actually get to the point of shaping historiography says a lot. It says that the current neurosis of the day allows us to render invisible, by mere force of our own desperate denial, whatever we cannot deal with and whatever we also want more than anything else.

I wonder, then, what people would pinpoint as our current blinding, intellectually crippling, romanticizing neuroses. I would love comments suggesting possibilities. I think it has to do with the environment, and with free market capitalism, and some weird thing about freedom and individualism, myself. I think for one thing we’ve made a religion out of rugged individualism and taken to abhorring the kind of very human need we have to be able to depend on other people around us in all kinds of capacities. (As a note, one of my Korean friends made this observation – in not so many words – about my culture when I talked about not minding living far away from my family.) Frankly, I’d love to hear other perspectives.

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