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Beyond Memoirs of Degradation and Redemption
Novel offers unfashionable focus on Identity rather than victimhood
Tales of suffering and redemption are, along with stories of revenge, eternally fascinating, says Berkeley, Calif., writer Charles Smith—so much so that “now we have the literary equivalent of grade inflation, ‘degradation inflation’,” he says. “To gain some attention in a market flooded with memoirs of pathologies overcome, bourgeois daughters of New York playwrights re-invent themselves as boyhood prostitutes. Hard drugs and hardened criminals just elicit yawns—unless they’ve been juiced with a stiff shot of degradation inflation.”
What happens when a thoroughly jaded public finally tires of “the deeper the pathology, the loftier the salvation” tales? Smith suspects that moment is at hand, and suggests that attention may return to the larger and ultimately more compelling topic of identity.
“A victim of abuse or addiction finding redemption is a morality tale which appeals to our desire for spiritual uplift,” Smith says, “but it doesn’t address the more profound issue of who you are. Redemption is the start of identity, not the conclusion.”
Titillating tales of pain and pathology, Smith says, fail to engage us once their repetitive nature is no longer masked by shock value. “Once the degradations become interchangable, the uplift is gone,” he says. “These stories are emotional Twinkies; you can only take so much junk food about junkies before you glaze over.”
The universal challenge of American life, according to Smith, isn’t escape from victimhood but the search for one’s identity in a multicultural society which abounds in both liberties and pitfalls.
Smith, whose own novel about two young multiethnic Americans, I-State Lines, will be published by The Permanent Press (NY) in April, says the issue is especially pressing to the millions of Americans who are a mix of cultures and ethnicities.
“There is a sense—left over, perhaps, from a time when there were only two visible Americas, white and black—that one’s identity should be easily defined and unchanging,” Smith says. “But the reality is that American identity is increasingly a mix of many identities—not just as a nation, but for each individual. We may have different identities at different times, and in different groups.” The present-day young American, Smith notes, is likely a Cosmopolitan, as described by Ghana-born Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.
According to Appiah, who has also explored identity in earlier works such as The Ethics of Identity, the core of Cosmopolitanism is tolerance of others and a universal moral code. In Smith’s view, Appiah’s belief that tolerance is the result of ongoing dialogs between people and groups—what Appiah calls “conversations”—is as important to shaping one’s identity as a moral code.
“In my book,” Smith says, “the two young characters are living out the idea that there’s no better way to establish an American identity, especially if you’re multi-ethnic, than to get out on the road and start conversations with Americans of various ages, backgrounds and heritages—and with the American landscape itself.”
Smith says that implicit in Appiah’s work is the notion that a self-absorbed preoccupation with rights and fulfillment can lead to a destructive moral relativism. “The characters in my book are less on a voyage of self-fulfillment than one of moral awakening,” says Smith. “They are acutely aware that moral deeds form the backbone of one’s identity.”
This notion of an earned authenticity is at the heart, says Smith, of both his book I-State Lines and of philosopher Charles Taylor’s works, The Ethics of Authenticity and Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. The modern ideal of radical individualism places the burden of establishing an identity on each person, Smith notes, rather than through moral or cultural absolutes as in traditional societies. Like Taylor, Smith believes authenticity is grounded not in misguided self-absorption or an economic definition of cost/benefit analysis but in a “moral good” defined by collaboration and even sacrifice for others.
Discussions of identity get short shrift in a culture attuned to degradation and redemption, Smith acknowledges, and he doesn’t expect his novel to get any media attention.
“Hopefully, young people of mixed heritages who are struggling with identity and moral authenticity will stumble across it,” he says. “I hope they’ll find that they’re not alone in seeking a new understanding of American Identity.”
I-State Lines publication date: April 2006
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All content and coding copyright © 2006 by Charles Hugh Smith, all rights reserved. The right to reprint or adapt this feature story is expressly granted to professional journalists working in any media or language.
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