Friday, December 08, 2006

A Sort of Response ...

I've been thinking about this post over at Sarsaparilla, and I've been thinking about the conversation that resulted, and criticism by a few of the Sars folk of writers like C S Lewis and H Rider Haggard. Comments like '... I loved Lewis at 10. Sadly, as I grew older, the British Empire racism and sexism began to be a little too intrusive for me ... '. Or '.... It's a problem with that Empire stuff - I put Kippling and Rider Haggard in that (adventurous) basket - of its age, but still gripping yarns for kids ... '

I'm still not sure how far I go with comments like this. Sure, there are a few racist and sexist stereotypes in the Chronicles of Narnia. To me, that doesn't detract from the fact that when he was writing at his best, Lewis really had the ability to write feelingly, incisively, and powerfully about his characters. You won't very often see a better character portrayal than Eustace Clarence Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And I don't think there's much sexism in his portrayal of Lucy, a heroine of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, who fights alongside her brothers in the penultimate battle of that novel.

It could be that for me it just comes down to a few ideological differences I have, or I think I have, with most of the Sarsaparilla bloggers and commenters. They're by and large from the intellectual left, and you see comments like 'This writer tends to be racist' or 'There are sexist implications' from time to time. I even remember one conversation where another commentator asked me if I saw the racist implications in a schooltime snack (Redskins). It is worth talking about things like racism and sexism, but I just find it a bit silly discussing the racial implications of childhood snacks. It's an old left-right division, maybe: to the Left, everything (even childhood snacks) can be political. Right-leaning people like myself would prefer childhood snacks to stay unpolitical, thanksverymuch.
And then there's the statement in the same thread: "There can be no knowing through stereotypes". Bit of a stereotype, no? For me, I think the truth is probably closer to the opposite: that people only can know through stereotypes - that it's through generalising about people and about things that we are able to see the hidden connections and laws that make up our world.

That's another reason why I'm a little wary about talk about 'racism'. What modern people might see as racism in books by people like Lewis or Rider Haggard or Kipling could just be those authors using literary and stylistic techniques to distinguish their characters, to impose order on their fictional world. Was Lewis really being racist, for instance, when he made a division between Narnians and Calormenes in books like The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle? He could write sympathetically about Calormene's too, ennobling them with a history and a culture; one of his heroines is Calormene by birth and by upbringing. Is it really fair to insist that Lewis's often highly-stylised allegorical fantasies conform to modern expectations about portrayal of race?
Or then, with Rider Haggard. King Solomon's Mines is a brilliant adventure story that ranged over an entire continent - it goes from the forests to the desert to the mountains and then through a series of caves, right into the bowels of the earth, as his heroes (Englishmen in a time of British empire) went on a treasure hunt. His book is full of racial stereotypes: but then, he was writing at a time when national and ethnic differences would have been much starker than they are now. And he wasn't ignorant of the African way of life; he was writing after having worked for several years as a colonial administrator in South Africa.

An even starker example of racial stereotyping appears in the early SF novelette The Time Machine, where the Time Traveller goes forward into the future and finds a world where the poor and the rich have evolved into different species altogether; the poor have evolved into cunning beasts who live underground and feed off the stupid but gentle above-ground dwelling rich.
A world where the poor and rich are separate species? That's pretty racist! And Wells, unlike Lewis or (presumably) Rider Haggard was, at the time of writing this story, a radical socialist. So I don't think the stereotyping you find in these adventure stories is used (as some would argue) to prop up existing social structures. I think that it's often wiser to take stories by writers like Lewis and Rider Haggard on their own terms, not on the terms set down by modern political ideology. And you can get a lot out of them that way, too: Rider Haggard and Lewis and Wells wrote with such imaginative force that there is a constant sense of discovery and awe to their adventure narratives. Lewis and Wells, in particular, went even further; their books took sudden diversions into drama, allegory, satire, myth, and religious and philosophical tracts; and they managed bring to light ethical problems in a way not possible in other writing genres.

That's good enough for me!


Caz said...

A resort to stereotypes is either via ignorance or intellectual laziness. Journalists and shock-jocks are good at helping the masses to think in nothing other than stereotypes. It's an intriguing shorthand way to interpret the world, given how bereft it is of anything useful. By that I simply mean that stereotypes are rarely, if ever, of a positive kind - can you think of one?

A person being described or commented upon without resort to stereotypes is rarely being presented in a negative light. See, "unique" is superior, therefore positive and good.

I think people now latch onto the stereotype tag as a lazy criticism, failing to appreciate that the human mind is programmed to categorize - which is NOT the same as dividing the world up into stereotypes, which are, primarily, the domain of bad fiction and sit-coms, and sometimes excellent stage shows.

If we did not categorize, we could not make sense of the world, we would repeat foolish actions over and over (well … even more so), we would be very slow to learn anything, we would fail in our dealings with people, unable to complete simple social or commercial transactions, and so on, and we would probably go a little bit insane fairly quickly.

We categorize lefties or Watermelons, or vegetarians, or the elderly, or squawking red headed politicians, but within those categories, most people are able to differentiate the individuals within the category.

Of course, there are times when a stereotype is correct and appropriate, but that's not what the Sar's people are blogging about - they're being lazy by throwing around a cliché without assessing it’s validity, or examining whether they are the people perpetuating a falsehood.

TimT said...

I'm not clear what you're saying the difference is between stereotyping and categorising?

Some of these terms have more validity than others. I just don't see how a stereotype is necessarily 'bad'.
A 'prejudice', on the other hand, is 'pre-judging', by definition - which is self-evidently a bad thing.
No-one in their right mind would say that 'racism' is a good thing.
But what about 'bias'? That's an ambiguous term.

Caz said...

A category is merely the mind's way of understanding common things. We know the general shape of a thing called a chair, thus, when we see a piece of furniture conforming to that general design, no matter if made of wood, or square, or material with padding, or in a 70s enclosed plastic ball, we understand that this is the particular piece of furniture that we can sit on without being rude or foolish, as opposed to sitting on the kitchen bench, or the television.

We understand emotional and social content the same way: categorising and recognising common themes, features, interconnections.

This is how children learn; this is how we all navigate living.

Science would be hard pressed to exist without categories, or some similar systematic way of understanding and validating evidence.

A stereotype is not a category. It has come to be used, most often, in a pejorative manner, hence why it has lost its discursive value.

Prejudice and stereotypes are unrelated, other than to the extent that a person may be prejudiced, with the root of their prejudicial thinking being bound up in an unfounded stereotype. They’re not interchangeable concepts, especially when you consider a ‘positive’ stereotype, eg, teenage girls who think that every 17 year old boy with a tattoo is cool, intelligent and attractive – with no supporting data, other than what they’ve seen on The OC.

Bias is a different beast again, which may be based on experience, or culturally acquired, etc. Bias can simply be that you prefer girls with blue eyes, particularly for a serious relationship. You might only like the company of people your own age, for no special reason, but that’s a personal age bias on show, not necessarily because you are ageist.

TimT said...

I think I see what you mean. What do you think about the books mentioned? A few people seem to be put off by the implicit Christian message in C S Lewis. And you CAN make a case for Lewis being sexist, but the best examples come from his sf 'Out of the Silent Planet' trilogy, and definitely not the Narnia books. (The most important character in the series is arguably Lucy, and she's nobody's fool.)

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TimT said...

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Anonymous said...

I always remember Lewis saying (in That Hideous Strength)that God is so masculine, in relation to Him everything else is feminine, which seems sort of meta-sexist and reduced my embarrassment at his normal, everyday sexism, which, of course, he had in spades.

TimT said...

That sounds like Lewis.

I got angry at the way he treated his main female character. Sure, she was always intended to be a satire on the 'modern' woman, but the closing pages of the book are just ridiculous. Pity, too, because many of the other passages in THS are great - a few chapters before he brings the zoo into an Oxford dining hall!

That's the thing about Lewis: you get passages of brilliant writing against what is essentially religious pulp. Why on earth he thought he could end 'Perelandara' with a verseless (and almost meaningless) THIRTY PAGE PSALM, I don't know. I lasted for the first page and gave it up.

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