Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when the family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.
Wesley Morris has a fine essay on our obsession with identity over at the New York Times. Morris ties together a number of major news stories from the past year to highlight how they all relate in one way or another to a widely shared obsession with identity: What makes a person who they are? How much control does a person have over their own identity? How fluid can an identity be? And why is race, in contrast to gender, so much harder to redefine or shift?
In a piece that ranges from Anne Hathaway’s new movie to Barack Obama to Mr. Robot to Amazon’s popular show “Transparent,” Morris attempts to answer those questions.
So far as it goes, Morris’s piece is quite good. His particular point on how race has, so far, proven stubbornly resistant to the sort of changes that we have seen in other modes of identity, most notably that of sexuality and gender, is particularly interesting and is something I’m still trying to figure out.
I am curious if race has proven to be more fluid in other countries with different racial histories than the United States. (If you know more than I do about race in Britain or France, which may require no more than actually living in either of those places, I’d love to hear from you.) One of the chief issues with transitioning from black to white or vice versa in America is that both moves are fraught with an historical weight that our society finds very difficult to ignore. Somewhat bizarrely, transitioning between genders is actually seen as being less disruptive to society than transitioning between races because of our nation’s horrifying history of racism.
Simply put, we have learned how to think about gender transitions as a matter of individual choice and self-realization. We have, with regard to gender, learned to isolate individual bodies from the rest of society so that a person can alter their body in whatever way seems fitting—although you can still find a number of feminists who are unhappy about that.
In contrast, we have not been able to isolate the body in the same way when it comes to racial issues. We are far less comfortable with a person attempting to isolate their own identity as black or white from our society’s concern with blackness and whiteness.
One thing this suggests to me is that while nature may have lost much of its persuasive power, as demonstrated by the ever-expanding list of gender identities available to us, history has not. And whatever else we might say about it, it is an encouraging thing that something still exists which can negate the claims of an individual wishing to define their own concept of existence. (It is a tragic commentary on our nation’s continued racism that for many black people the only path to justice often appears to be passing as a white person.) The other striking thing about this distinction between race and gender is that the only thing capable of thwarting individual sovereignty is brutality. The fact of American racism, both seen in our history and in our present, is enough to discipline those who would attempt to pass for another race, even if race itself actually is a far more fluid concept than gender.
We are thus not persuaded by the beauty of something which actually exists in nature, such as male and female bodies. We are, instead, only persuaded by horrible race-based violence which has existed in history and in the present. Beauty does not compel us in any way, for, as the popular line goes, your definition of beauty is not my definition and who can know whose is the correct one or if there is even such a thing as a “correct” idea of beauty? Horror, however, can still provide a sort of immovable rule for individuals in their quest to define themselves.
Predictably, Morris ignores one of the most important questions concerning identity: the role that place plays in shaping and defining a person’s life and work. Throughout the essay he explores how various individuals struggle to find a comfortable or secure identity, typically as they press up against the pressures of social expectation and custom, two things which we today simply assume are negotiable boundaries that are actually meant to be transgressed. Yet what Morris never wrestles with is the role that physical places and individual people play in the shaping of an identity. It is relatively easy to dispense with limitations when it is an abstraction like “social acceptability.” It is quite another when it is the fact of a known land, known people, and a known way of life that knits the two together.
Yet place is wholly absent from Morris’s reflections, as is family save for that fleeting mention of “Transparent.” This too, may be a sad commentary on the legacy of American racism which has, in one sense, consisted chiefly in the destruction of predominantly black places and black families. (The largest neighborhood in St Paul, MN was, for example, literally bulldozed and erased from memory to accommodate the construction of Interstate 94.) So the fault here may not be Morris’s; rather it may be an inevitable consequence of the brutality that white Americans have always shown toward black Americans. Even so, the omission is jarring and worth commenting on.
Lewis and Tolkien understood the significance of place quite well, as anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings well knows. For Tolkien the fact of one’s place is one of the most foundational truths about an individual. Much of the difference between individuals—take Aragorn and Boromir for example—concerns the place that they have come from. The same goes for broader communities—much is made, for example, of the Dwarvish love for caves and mountains and the rival Elvish love of woods and rivers. These places are loved by Tolkien’s characters and that love calls them to a certain response. Because the dwarves love Erebor they must fight the dragon. Because the Hobbits love the Shire they must fight Sauron. In this picture, true external objects of love call forth a certain type of response from the lover. That we no longer have places which call forth such responses from us may go some way toward explaining the current crisis of identity.
This point also explains the impotence of conservative responses to this new sovereignty of the individual. It is fitting that the symbol of this conservative resistance is Donald Trump, a man whose success is wholly attributable to his family’s investment in a place who has, nonetheless, shown a regular disdain in his own life for the limits of family and of place. The typical blustering conservative response to these social changes fails for the perfectly obvious reason that many conservatives actually hate nature as much as their alleged opponents do; they simply haven’t pushed it as far.
That a man who has been married three times and who has invested himself so heavily in Las Vegas, a place my pastor once described as the result of America vomiting into a desert, could somehow rise to the top of the polls for the “conservative” party only shows how deeply all Americans, both left and right, despise nature.
When the left alleges that the modern GOP is only interested in protecting the wealthy, they are perfectly right. The GOP is the party of individual sovereignty for me but not for thee for the obvious reason that my individual sovereignty can be more fully realized if you are under my boot creating the conditions necessary for my illusion to survive. The left is simply more generous and consistent in their approach to this question, although that, incidentally, is also why their social vision cannot but fail in the long term. The end of absolute individual sovereignty when it is realized and accepted across an entire society can only be some kind of apocalypse.
This too points to the difficulty and the hope of our current predicament. If we will learn to love nature again, we must begin with loving the places and families that have been given to us. We cannot love “nature” as an abstraction which we ourselves define. If we do that, then we are simply adopting a more sophisticated version of this same toxic individualism. We must love the places and the family God has given us. “You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart” Auden tells us and he is right.
In one sense, this seems a small and meager response to what any traditionalist knows is a large-scale identity crisis. And yet there is hope in it as well. Loving the Shires and the Erebors and the Brandybucks and the Tooks of our world may seem too small and trivial a response to what we witness happening all around us. What hope such a small response offers may seem like little more than a fool’s hope. And yet…
St Paul tells us that God will use the fools to shame the wise. May we be such fools.