american literature · Ethnicity Studies · graduate school · Writing

Connecting the Dots: Intellectual Collage

I remember being part of a focus group my senior year as an undergraduate. It was my English Capstone course, and this sociology student came in and asked us questions about how we felt about the course. Most of us were disgruntled. The course seemed designed for students who had never held jobs and hadn’t paid attention during the past four years of our college career. Since my school had a lot of students that were paying their own way through, and had taken some time off between high school and college, we didn’t quite fit this bill.

So, during this focus group we were all kind of frustrated and suffering from senioritis and a lot of complaints surfaced.

But then one of my classmates said, to me, “The best thing I got out of this class was learning how to connect the dots. But I got that from listening to her” he pointed to me “before and after class. She always sees connections between everything, even when there doesn’t seem to be one.”

That’s not something I realized I did, or that I was good at. But that comment comes back to me, time and time again, as I continue throughout my academic career. Connecting the dots. I read all this different literature, a lot of different theory and criticism, and none of it really matches up or goes together. My program doesn’t have a core course structure, so a lot of the graduate students here end up having a sort of collage aesthetic when we look back over the courses we’ve taken.

This is to my detriment, I fear, in some ways, when I go on the job market because I don’t honestly feel like I have a specialty. I tell people I do ethnicity studies and some people dig that and others are confused because they want me to point to one ethnicity. But really, I just connect the dots. Can I say I have a specialty in that?

Like right now, I just finished reading Edward Said’s Orientalism. This book doesn’t really belong on my reading list, since I’m not doing Indian, Egyptian, or Middle Eastern studies. The work I do has nothing to do with Islam or Arabs. But, a few years ago when I took a summer study course in Taos, New Mexico, we read Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. I got stuck on one particular passage, and couldn’t let the idea go:

On the morning after the Bishop’s return from Durango, after his first night in his Episcopal residence, he had a pleasant awakening from sleep. He had ridden into the court-yard after nightfall, having changed horses at a rancho and pushed on nearly sixty miles in order to reach home. Consequently he slept late the next morning—did not awaken until six o’clock, when he heard the Angelus ringing. He recovered conscious- ness slowly, unwilling to let go of a pleasing delusion that he was in Rome. Still half believing that he was lodged near St. John Lateran, he yet heard every stroke of the Ave Maria bell, marvelling to hear it rung correctly (nine quick strokes in all, divided into threes, with an interval between); and from a bell with beautiful tone. Full, clear, with something bland and suave, each note floated through the air like a globe of silver. Before the nine strokes were done Rome faded, and behind it he sensed something Eastern, with palm trees,—Jerusalem, perhaps, though he had never been there. Keeping his eyes closed, he cherished for a moment this sudden, pervasive sense of the East. Once before he had been carried out of the body thus to a place far away. It had happened in a street in New Orleans. He had turned a corner and come upon an old woman with a basket of yellow flowers; sprays of yellow sending out a honey-sweet perfume. Mimosa—but before he could think of the name he was overcome by a feeling of place, was dropped, cassock and all, into a garden in the south of France where he had been sent one winter in his childhood to recover from an illness. And now this silvery bell note had carried him farther and faster than sound could travel.

When he joined Father Vaillant at coffee, that impetuous man who could never keep a secret asked him anxiously whether he had heard anything.

“I thought I heard the Angelus, Father Joseph, but my reason tells me that only a long sea voyage could bring me within sound of such a bell.”

“Not at all,” said Father Joseph briskly. “I found that remark- able bell here, in the basement of old San Miguel. They tell me it has been here a hundred years or more. There is no church tower in the place strong enough to hold it—it is very thick and must weigh close upon eight hundred pounds. But I had a scaf- folding built in the churchyard, and with the help of oxen we raised it and got it swung on cross-beams. I taught a Mexican boy to ring it properly against your return.”

“But how could it have come here? It is Spanish, I suppose?”

“Yes, the inscription is in Spanish, to St. Joseph, and the date is 1356. It must have been brought up from Mexico City in an ox-cart. A heroic undertaking, certainly. Nobody knows where it was cast. But they do tell a story about it: that it was pledged to St. Joseph in the wars with the Moors, and that the people of some besieged city brought all their plate and silver and gold ornaments and threw them in with the baser metals. There is certainly a good deal of silver in the bell, nothing else would account for its tone.”

Father Latour reflected. “And the silver of the Spaniards was really Moorish, was it not? If not actually of Moorish make, copied from their design. The Spaniards knew nothing about working silver except as they learned it from the Moors.”

“What are you doing, Jean? Trying to make my bell out an in- fidel?” Father Joseph asked impatiently.

The Bishop smiled. “I am trying to account for the fact that when I heard it this morning it struck me at once as something oriental.

This notion of something “oriental” all the way in New Mexico struck me as odd, in part because of the way in which the indigenous population was portrayed all throughout Cather’s novel, and also in the way that Latour, throughout the novel, is trying to bring France to New Mexico with the building of his church. There’s no doubt that the work of the colonizer is at play here.

So I got stuck on the idea of Orientalism being at play in American anthropology and ethnography, in the modernist primitivism and romanticism placed upon the “vanishing” indigenous and folk cultures. And as I read Orientalism this week, a few of Said’s passages stood out in particular relevance to this theory of mine. For context, Said discusses Orientalism as the academic field of studying the Orient, but also in terms of politics, ideas, and myths. Much of what is accepted as true about the Orient is actually based upon myths of superiority produced by British and French colonizers. The Orient is the Other to the Occident, but, as Said points out, we have no field of study called “Occidentalism.” He does not say it, but it is implied: We don’t have Occidentalism because that is assumed to be the standard, the norm, and it needs no study. The West goes without saying; all Other must be defined. Yet, as Said points out, an entire field of study is governed by political imperialism (pg. 14).

So, as I read American modernists and realize that many American modernists were, in the Southwest in particular, trying to tap into a rich cultural heritage, trying to give themselves the same type of “rootedness” that Europe seems to have, I could see this sort of Orientalism being applied to the Pueblo cultures, to the Spaniards. They are this mystical other, connected to the land, old and ancient and wise, but also inferior and primitive and, naturally, inferior to the French Father Latour’s ideas and experiences in Rome.

I still have some work to do, to connect all of this, of course. Next up, I’m reading Culture and Imperialism so that might add to my thoughts. But, the main thing I take away from Said, right now, is that the West operates from its assumptions, operates from what it already thinks it knows, and rarely lets material reality or evidence detract from already-established ideology and beliefs. This is something that demonstrates itself in much of the literature that I’m dealing with in my work, and also that manifests itself in current cultural and political thought.

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