To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

I think sometimes about how people change, individually, and how society changes. Human nature doesn't change, does it? But things that are socially acceptable become less so, or more so, over time. Are we getting better? Is it better that we don't (usually) openly make fun of mentally retarded people, or hide them away in shame? Oh yes. On the other hand, parents of children with Down syndrome report being asked by complete strangers why they didn't abort them, as though they had a duty to do so. That's not better.

And one has to ask what society is, anyway. I tend to think we each have our own society: people we hang with, in real life or on the net, people whose opinions we read in the newspaper or whose shows we watch on TV. So whether violent video games, for instance, affect society probably depends on whose society we're talking about. Unless I am the victim of a violent criminal who took his inspiration from those games, they don't affect my society at all. Except insofar as I care about people I don't have dealings with, as I am supposed to do, and fret about their societies.

Anyway, one of the things I think about is the changing acceptability of words. The n-word comes to mind, of course. There is a book I really like: Twilight Sleep, by Edith Wharton, one of my favorite writers. One of the reasons I like her work is that she draws her characters so finely, and includes such detail in her stories, that you can pick up all kind of social nuances that have disappeared since her day. (An example is in "The Lady's Maid's Bell", which is one of the stories I linked to in my previous post. The exchange between Hartley, the lady's maid who narrates the story, and Mrs. Railton, neatly illustrates how each of these women know their "place", yet they appear to like each other. They are totally comfortable with social distinctions we don't have now.)

So in Twilight Sleep there is a fairly tragic character in Nona, Pauline's daughter. Nona at 19 is the conscience of the book. She's never had any real spiritual guidance from her mother, although her mother would argue that. She's left Nona to develop her own spiritual/ethical compass as best she can, and Nona has done pretty well; better perhaps than her mother would like. For instance, Nona doesn't see the social distinctions the way Pauline does. Pauline's secretary, Maisie, has a mother who develops cancer. Pauline sees this as an inconvenience for herself, although she tries to push this down, and generously offers to pay for all of Maisie's mother's care. But it's Nona who goes to the hospital and actually sits with Maisie, and holds her hand, while her mother has surgery. Pauline worries that Nona is just a little too good, really. Here:

Pauline turned a tender smile on her daughter. "It's so like you, Nona, to want to be with Maisie for the operation - so fine, dear."

Voice and smile were full of praise; yet behind the praise (Nona also knew) lurked the unformulated apprehension: "All this running after sick people and unhappy people - is it going to turn into a vocation?" Nothing could have been more distasteful to Mrs. Manford than the idea that her only daughter should be not only good, but merely good: like poor Agnes Heuston, say ... Nona could hear her mother murmuring, "I can't imagine where on earth she got it from," as if alluding to some physical defect unaccountable in the offspring of two superbly sound progenitors.

You see here that besides being empathetic with Maisie, Nona has more insight into Pauline's "unformulated apprehension" than even Pauline does.

Yet here is Nona out on a date: "Isn't there a rather good little Italian restaurant somewhere near here? And afterward there's that n--- dancing at the Housetop."

How jarring that is. One thinks that when this book was brought back into print they could have changed that line: "afterward there's jazz at the Housetop" for instance. Because if Nona were a girl of today she would bite her tongue off before she'd say that word. On the other hand, it's interesting to see how the corporate view of what is or is not acceptable changes.

Let me pause and say that of course one realizes this is fiction. At the same time, Nona is a very important character in the book, and her depiction has internal consistency throughout. If it had ever been brought to her attention that the n-word is rude and hurtful she would not have said it. Either it would not have been brought to her attention (very possible) or it simply was not the derogatory term then that it is now.

So the minor issue here is that one reads these books and is jarred by this kind of thing - Twilight Sleep also includes a much more problematic outburst of anti-Semitism by a less sympathetic character - and wonders whether the text should really be left as it is, which causes one to hesitate before recommending it to people it might upset.

The other issue, and the reason why these books should probably be left as they are, is that in many cases you kind of have to judge people and events by the standards of the day. Not every case, of course. Major things like murder and rape have always been wrong. And individuals or (hopefully) small groups always have and always will find ways to rationalize doing what they want to do, even when they know they're wrong. Use of words, though, don't you have to take that in context? There was a school somewhere that I read about a few weeks ago, that wasn't allowed to put on a play based on Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" because originally in England (never here) it was published as "Ten Little N---s". That was in 1932, as I recall. The story has nothing about black people in it. Isn't that a bit much?

Anyway, so acceptable use of words changes. Acceptable attitudes change - in "The Lady's Maid's Bell", Mrs. Railton notes that because Hartley can read aloud, she is educated above her station. I don't believe anyone would let that pass their lips today, but Hartley thinks nothing of it.

And we are reminded that well-meaning people have done things in the past that we reject now. The fact that they are now rejected doesn't necessarily mean that they were bad. The rejection itself may be a passing fad. Going back to mentally retarded people - look at the controversy over mainstreaming. Those children used to be excluded from regular classrooms. Then there was a push to mainstream absolutely all of them, because segregating them is BAD. But every now and then you run across the parent of a child with a severe mental handicap, or a teacher who has mainstreamed kids in her classroom, who question the wisdom of mainstreaming every single kid, or assert outright that some of them should not be mainstreamed. Segregating schools by race used to be wrong and bad, but we find Afro-centric schools springing up in places where the grownups are desperate to find some way of reaching the next generation of black kids. So I think it's useful to look at these things and separate out the things we have let go of, or need to let go of, because they're wrong; and things that we let go of that we need to bring back, like the idea that folks should get married before they start having kids, like they used to do.

When F was a little girl I gave her Little House books and Louisa May Alcott books to read along with her contemporary fiction. I wasn't trying to prepare her for life in the 19th century. I simply wanted her to have some perspective, to see that pop culture of today isn't all there is or has ever been, and to see that ideas like temperance and sexual morality didn't just spring up overnight among the people on the fringes of society. One of the ways I tried to be a bit proactive about helping her develop her own spiritual/ethical compass. Mine's still developing.

No comments: