Looking ourselves over

1. The apple of the eye

“Incline thine ear unto me, and hear my speech,” prays the ancient Hebrew psalmist. “Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings” (Psalm 17:6,8). Might the non-religious person, too, give voice to one’s innermost feelings and still preserve our essential privacy and sense of wholeness? Is this not what it means to bear witness: to attest to the truth of our experiences without violating the essential mystery of our personhood?

“In the common man’s perception facts appear with a minimum of significance, while to the artist the fact overflows with meaning; things communicate to him more significance than he is able to absorb. Creative living in art, science and religion is a denial of the assumption that man is the source of significance; he merely lends his categories and means of expression to a meaning that is already there. Only those who have lost their sense of meaning would claim that self-expression rather than world-expression is the purpose of living.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951).

Amen! The cant about poetry being important primarily as a form of self-expression has always irritated the hell out of me, so I was delighted to stumble across this passage while idly re-reading the first few chapters of Heschel’s manifesto this morning.

Let me hasten to add that I do recognize the importance of writing and other artistic endeavors as forms of therapy. For girls and women, whose thoughts and experiences have traditionally been devalued by the would-be arbiters of taste, the confessional mode – in which “what I really think” and “what really happened to me” are of necessity foregrounded – is said to be especially empowering. Well and good! But of what use is power so obtained if it doesn’t prompt one to go beyond the boundaries of the mundane self – to give voice to the world-self in all its ineffable wonder? That, after all, is the prerogative that male thinkers and artists have sought to preserve for themselves throughout the millennia. Was our mythic mother Eve thinking of mere self-expression or self-aggrandizement when, with her smooth-tongued helper, she obtained the forbidden fruit?

As a sweet apple reddens
on a high branch

at the tip of the topmost bough:
The apple-pickers missed it.

No, they didn’t miss it:
They couldn’t reach it.

– Sappho (trans. Jim Powell, Sappho: A Garland, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993)

If the root purpose of art is to try and give shape to nameless longings, intuitions and aspirations – to engage in world-expression, or counter-creation as the critic George Steiner puts it – then surely some tact, some reverence toward our material is called for. If poets wish to put some portion of their naked selfhood on display, let them remember that they are as much a mystery to the discovering eye as any other portion of the cosmos. Let artists in the confessional mode strive to be nude rather than naked: the eye must be entranced, not invited to vivisect.

2. Ourselves as others see us

We Anglo-Americans are particularly weak at showing (self)respect and practicing hospitality. Our love of superficial verity – “That’s just the way I am,” “I am just being honest with you” – is childish. At best, we are charmingly innocent; at worst, we are boorish and even brutal in our obliviousness to the feelings of others.

Keith Basso’s study Portraits of “The Whiteman”: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols Among the Western Apache (Cambridge U.P., 1979) is one of the few anthropological studies to focus squarely on what happens when the natives turn anthropologist. Through sheer chance (a tape recorder left on when he left the room) Basso stumbled across a genre of improvised comedy in which the Western Apache ape the stereotyped oddities of the Whiteman – a caricature that will strike most readers (myself included) as uncomfortably familiar.

This a funny book and a good read. I will confine myself to listing those Anglo-American traits that Apaches find particularly mystifying or obnoxious, according to Basso (pp. 48-55):

1. “There is no word in Western Apache that corresponds precisely to the English lexeme friend. The nearest equivalent is shich’inzhoni (‘toward me, he is good’), an expression used only by individuals who have known each other for many years and, on the basis of this experience, have developed strong feelings of mutual respect. In contrast, Apaches note, Anglo-Americans refer to and address as ‘friends’ persons they have scarcely met, persisting in this practice even when it is evident from the things they say and do that they hold these individuals in low esteem.” Indians all over the continent are of course painfully aware of this bizarre predilection: the “forked tongue” phenomenon.

2. “Except among persons who enjoy close relations, such as husbands and wives, unsolicited queries concerning an individual’s health or emotional state constitute impertinent violations of personal privacy. If an Apache wishes to discuss such matters, he or she will do so. If not, they are simply nobody’s business. But Anglo-Americans make them their business, and they go about it with a dulling regularity that belies what Apache consider an unnatural curiosity about the inner feelings of other people. This is interpreted as a form of self-indulgence that in turn reflects a disquieting lack of self-control – the same lack of control, Apaches say, that manifests itself in the prying queries of young children and the unrestrained babblings of old people afflicted with senility.” Ouch!

3. The way Anglos publicly acknowledge an individual’s entrance or exit from a gathering, with much fuss and fanfare, can cause that individual to feel “isolated and socially exposed in a way that can be acutely uncomfortable.” Basso nowhere says so, but this kind of gulf in behavior must relate in part to sharp differences in belief about the reality of witchcraft. In many parts of the world, calling undue attention to others or toward one’s self, one’s possessions, etc. is an open invitation to ensorcelling envy (the evil eye, e.g.). However one prefers to think about witch-beliefs, the fact is that in close-knit, village societies, envy is perhaps the single most dangerous and disruptive emotion; every effort must be made not to arouse it.

4. Closely related to this is the taboo against use or overuse of personal names. To many native peoples, the “Whiteman” most appears as a sorcerer in light of his persistent violation of this taboo. “Calling someone by name is sometimes linked to temporarily borrowing a valued possession . . . Just as rights of borrowing imply friendship and solidarity, so do rights of naming . . . Persons who name too much, like persons who borrow too often, can be justly accused of engaging in an obsequious form of exploitation that violates the rights of others. . . . Whitemen are observed to use the same name over and over again in the same conversation. This practice is harder to understand [than the mere use of someone’s name immediately upon learning it]. A frequent explanation, only slightly facetious, is that Whitemen are extremely forgetful and therefore must continually remind themselves of whom they are talking to.” Ouch, again!

5. Constant physical contact – actually, any physical contact, especially between adult males – is regarded with extreme discomfort and alarm, including handshaking and backslapping. (White politicians are not real popular on the rez, apparently.) And as in many cultures, “prolonged eye contact, especially at close quarters, is typically interpreted as an act of aggression, a display of challenge and defiance.” Anecdotal observation suggests to me that this taboo, like the previous two, is in fact observed to some extent among sub-groups of Anglo-Americans as well. Appalachian whites, for example, are similar to Apaches in valuing personal privacy and individual autonomy above all else; preferring understatement to loud acclamations; and engaging in frequent joking among male friends as a substitute for, or sublimation of, aggression. Though handshakes are not avoided, I have often observed avoidance of formal introductions and especially of eye contact. Probably many rural folks would feel much the same way about people from suburban or urban backgrounds as the Western Apache do toward stereo-typed Anglos in general: that they (we) are “entirely too probing with their eyes and hands . . . indicative of a weakly developed capacity for self-restraint and an insolent disregard for the physical integrity of others. As one of my informants put it,” Basso concludes, “‘Whitemen touch each other like they were dogs.'” Arf!

6. What we may consider essential components of hospitality are frequently interpreted by the Apache as arrogant and offensive. This includes insistent invitations to “Come on in!” and “Have a seat!” Basso says, “If a visitor to an Apache home wants to enter it and sit down, he will quietly ask permission, wait until it is given, and then find an unoccupied space within. If not, he will state his business at the door, conduct it there or at a short distance away, and depart after a requisite exchange of pleasantries.” We have often observed this kind of circumspection among our rural Appalachian neighbors, as well. In this regard, I might add, the local importance of front porch sitting is more easily understood. The porch is an extension of the doorway, a neutral space between private and public realms where informal greetings, news and gossip may be exchanged and where folks can come and go, sit or stand as they please, without formal invitation. “To insist that the visitor come inside, to command him, is to overrule his right to do as he pleases,” Basso says.

7. In general, Apache find the way in which Anglos suggest that others do things extremely bossy. Indirection is preferred. For example, instead of suggesting that someone ought to wear a coat if they go hunting, an Apache would say something more innocuous like, “There sure are a lot of mosquitoes around.” Again, the culture of rural whites in Central Pennsylvania exhibits a milder form of the same reserve. The cardinal sin – judging from the number of times one is joked about it – is “getting a swelled head,” thinking one is better than anyone else. At a job site, workers will typically take much longer to perform a task than impatient managerial types deem necessary or efficient – hence the widespread perception of PennDOT workers, for instance, as ass-scratchers and shovel-leaners. On closer inspection, however, the reason for these delays quickly becomes obvious: everyone must be consulted before every major decision. The boss must be very careful to at least go through the motions of consulting the other workers, lest he be perceived as arrogant and obnoxious and lose the respect of his men. This kind of work-place democracy among the laboring classes in Anglo-Saxon society probably goes back a thousand years or more.

8. Another behavior regarded by many Anglos as an expression of courtesy is also seen as discourteous by Apaches: urgently inquiring of a guest what s/he wants or needs in the way of food, drink, etc. Apaches don’t like any questioning that appears to require an immediate response. This deprives others of their right to think things over before speaking. “Apaches agree that Anglo-Americans are inclined to ask too many questions and to repeat the same question (or minor variants of it) too many times. This gives them the appearance of being in a state of extreme hurry and aggravated agitation, which, besides being distinctly unattractive, sometimes causes them to lose sight of what Apaches take to be an obvious and important truth: carefully considered replies to questions are invariably more reliable (because less likely to be retracted or modified) than replies that have been rushed.”

9. The propensity of Anglos to speculate about misfortune and adversity – especially sickness and death – is highly alarming. Talking about trouble is held to contribute to the likelihood of its occurrence; hence, Apaches have the impression that we are “eager to experience hardship and disaster.” This may not be as absurd as it sounds. In the sickroom, such discussion should indeed be nearly taboo, in my opinion. A trusted doctor who pronounces that a patient has so many months to live – unless specifically pressed for such information by the patient himself – should be stripped of her office for violation of the Hippocratic directive, “First, do no harm.” (In Japan, by contrast, doctors will go to extreme lengths to avoid suggesting that patients might be on the way out.) On the other hand, I have the impression that speaking of one’s own death or other personal disasters in a joking fashion – gallows humor – is one very effective way to challenge their power over the imagination – and hence, possibly, to ward them off.

10. Comments regarding the personal appearance of others are widely criticized by Apaches. This has to do, again, with the taboo against directing public attention toward someone. Apaches strenuously avoid the kind of self-consciousness that Whites actively cultivate through minute, constant attention to their own personal appearance. Apaches believe that “Whitemen are deeply absorbed with the surfaces of themselves, an obsession that stems from a powerful need to be publicly perused and to be regarded as separate and distinct from other people.” One informant expressed amazement at the way Anglos look each other over, and the way we strive “to look different all the time. Some change clothes every day.” This critique gathers force when one considers the tremendous burden this looking-over behavior places on poor people in this country to always look and dress their best. It is only the well-to-do who can afford to look slovenly in Anglo society. Interestingly, in pre-modern Europe, crops, livestock and other forms of wealth that had been ensorcelled were said to have been “overlooked” – i.e., looked over by the witch’s envious eye.

11. When Western Apaches imitate Anglo speech, they use a fast, loud and “tense” manner quite opposed to their own cultural preference for low, soft and deliberate speaking. Apaches are fond of saying that “Whitemen are angry even when they’re friendly.” By contrast, as linguist Deborah Tannen noted in a recent essay, people from fast-talking societies, such as Manhattan, tend to regard slow, deliberate speech as a sign of dull wit. (See Languagehat for some additional reactions to this essay.) For what it’s worth, my personal preference is for somewhere in the middle, being on the one hand an inveterate blurter, but neither quick nor witty enough to effectively compete with a Manhattanite!

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