Only a brown woman

The_history_of_white_people_bookcoverThis week I finished The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. It is one for the freshman syllabus of the world.  A history of whiteness, really, and of how people have convinced themselves that other people were not human, in order to neglect, destroy, or exploit them. Race ideologies since the ancient world, for the most part, going on to include class and eugenics and immigration… I thought I knew a lot of this history. A quarter of the way through, I was in awe of the depth and breadth of her research. I would love to hear her talk for a few hours, she must be a library unto herself after all this. And a lively clear writer, able to distill centuries of material into illuminating stories, and string them all together across the ages.

Virginia (and Leonard) Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary is ongoing of course, I’m still indexing it for myself, and anyone else who ever wants a writer’s index for it (the original index is trash). I sat down to glance at her this morning before packing for my weekend writing retreat at Saltonstall.  When she talks about writing and reading and the natural world, she inspires me, always. When she talks about people she regards as less than herself, which seems to be most people, she’s horrible. April 1925: “All day I have heard that voice. I did not go to her help; but then every baker and flower seller did that. there was this woman in brown walking along the pavement–suddenly a red film car turns a somersault, lands on top of her, and one hears this oh, oh, oh…Nessa…made some effort to connect it with [her daughter’s] accident last spring. But I assured her it was only a passing brown woman; and so we went over the house composedly enough.”

Her shock is the important thing, her lingering impression of that voice. Not the woman herself, she distances her almost entirely. And this is just typical of her. But it was and is typical of anyone raised, or self-taught, to believe themselves genuinely better than most people. Earlier she wrote about how a friend wasn’t a good writer, but then his grandmother was the daughter of a grocer. Well, that explains it. As if all her genteel Oxbridge-educated friends of good family could all write. Beyond that: the masses, the hordes. The curious individual in the park. The badly dressed. Her scope of human sympathy only goes so far. The interior lives of most people repel her imagination like a reversed magnet, drive her toward abstractions, at best, bigotry at worst. It’s always like biting down on a piece of eggshell in the cake.

And echoes my struggle with Rilke in Paris this week. I have loved Rilke’s poetry and letters. They tempted me to learn German in my twenties. But again, he has that limited sympathy of the self-approving upper classes. This is a slender compilation of his letters and diaries, strung together by his translator, Maurice Betz, and first published in 1941. After wading through half of Betz’s introduction, I skimmed the rest of his passages as much as I could. France and French culture were key to Rilke’s development as an artist, he says, and so was the isolation of his life in Paris, alone in a crowd, enjoying the fresh outsider’s perspective in that stimulating, beautiful, and for him, somewhat frightening environment. Again, that perspective is very useful to an artist. The separation from the mundane, the focus on abstractions, on pure observation. But too much of it, combined with too much refinement, seems to encourage a lack of sympathy for the hordes, like insects, like–whatever icky swarming creature wells up in his anxious mind. And then the writing can become squeamish, heartless, afraid to come to grips with human life.

Betz has Rilke on a pedestal, and echoes his writing style, including his most operatic tones. Only, of course, he’s not Rilke. “An expressive ingredient for the precarious alchemy of his inwardness” is the sort of thing you’ll have to enjoy in order to love this book. Or, after Rodin rejects Rilke, “with a painful accent but not without dignity, the poet bade farewell to the artist whose bewitchment, in spite of everything, he continued to suffer.” To be fair, this is Rilke himself writing to Rodin on the same event: “So there you are, great master, become invisible to me, as if by some ascension carried off to the heavens which are yours.” It’s Rodin I feel for there.

I do love books like this for the first-person view of another time and place. It’s not the best of those I’ve read, but Rilke’s descriptions, and the insights into his writing process, made it worth the price of admission. Which was only my time, since I got it free from NetGalley. And it made me want to dip into Rilke again, without a middle man.

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