Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Essential American Character?

The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.

D. H. Lawrence

9 comments:

Brendan said...

It's a great line, but the rest of it is even better, I think:

"True myth concerns itself centrally with the onward adventure of the integral soul. And this, for America, is Deerslayer. A man who turns his back on white society. A man who keeps his moral integrity hard and intact. An isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring man, who lives by death, by killing, but who is pure white.

This is the very intrinsic--most American. He is at the core of all the other flux and fluff. And when this man breaks from his static isolation, and makes a new move, then look out, something will be happening. "

Paul said...

Brendan, is that you? This is an utterly beautiful surprise!

Thank you for completing Lawrence's quote! This morning, I'm puzzling over whether there is any longer an essential American character? Can a nation of immigrants from so many various cultures and societies really have an essential character?

I have heard it said that nowadays the essential American character is that Americans are always inventing themselves. What do you make of that? Is there any truth to it?

It is so good to see you again!

Brendan said...

Hi Paul, yes it's me. Thanks for your comments on my blog and for this most excellent blog of yours. I know you as "Phil", BTW. Do you prefer to be thought of as the lover of wisdom or the apostle to the gentiles?

There are dominant myths that play a part in individual's defining themselves as "American." I think that's what Lawrence is getting at when he talks about an "essential American character." As you point out, one of the most prominent aspects of the American identity myth is the American always inventing himself. As the Verve once said: "I'm a million different people from one day to the next" but "I can't change my mold."

Loren said...

How strangely appropriate I should read this as I'm reading Robinson Jeffers' poetry, as, at least in the early poems, he seems to fulfill this image perfectly, except for the killing.

Paul said...

Hi Brendan! Thank you for your kind words about the blog! Hopefully Anne and I can live up to them!

Well, "Phil" is my birth name, but when I was casting about for a name to go with "Sunstone" it seemed to me that "Paul" had a ring to it "Phil" lacked. So, I went with "Paul" on the grounds that poetry rules when it comes to internet names.

By the way, I must agree with you that myths are the primary way we define what is or isn't an American. In light of that, the Culture Wars can be seen as to some extent over whose myths we should adopt to define ourselves, don't you think?

Paul said...

Hi Loren! Welcome to Cafe Philos and thank you for an interesting comment about Robinson Jeffers!

Brendan said...

"In light of that, the Culture Wars can be seen as to some extent over whose myths we should adopt to define ourselves, don't you think?"

That's a brilliant observation. The new American fascism - the combination of religious reactionaries and corporate nihilists - is attempting to rewrite the defining mythology of American character. The dominant America creation myth is that it was born out of liberalism: respect for human dignity, tolerance, individual liberty, security and privacy in ones person and property, cooperation, and social justice. Those things do not lend themselves to a passive population of obedient consumers sought by the emerging mythology of conservatism.

You are so right that the so-called Culture Wars are a battle between competing mythologies. The attempts to rewrite American "history," and redefine "traditional" American values, is exactly what the new American "conservative" movement is about.

Paul said...

Brian, your comments remind me of a famous talk show host, Sean Hennedy (sp?) who I used to listen to on the radio a few years ago during our invasion of Iraq.

One day, he said that we were fighting in Iraq for the freedom to take our families to Disneyland. I laughed and didn't take his comment at face value -- how could anyone be serious saying such a thing?

Later that same week, he repeated his remark that we were fighting for the freedom to take our families to Disneyland. At which point it struck me that he might be serious, that the man simply cannot think of anything better to fight for than consumer values.

I don't suspect all neo-conservatives share that particular talk show host's bimbo insights -- but one might still wonder just what would be worth fighting for if America were ever to become a neo-conservative paradise? Put differently, what vision for America do neo-conservatives have other than that contained in an unholy alliance between consumerism and conservative Christianity?

Paul said...

By the way, Brendan, I just called you "Brian". That came from having immediately before posting my last comment written an email to someone named "Brian". I suppose he was still on my mind. My apologies for any confusion I've caused.