May 21, 2009
The Smart Guy: Hero or Villain?
Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It In The Bush, that lonely work of early Canadian literature, has a lot to pick apart for the modern reader. While being generally well written and amusing it is hard to ignore the prejudices of its period that leap off every page. Moodie and her husband aren’t so much “roughing it” as they are “complaining about it”. In an era of cholera outbreaks, crop failures, financial ruins and social upheavals Moodie seems chiefly astounded at how hard it is to find good help in the new world, and at how often her new neighbours swear. By page 160 she finally breaks down and has to do some manual labour herself and seems shocked that there is any virtue in it. Despite professing to have come to love her adoptive country she nevertheless speaks with nothing but disdain for a good number of its inhabitants, the Loyalist Americans and the Irish especially.
What surprised me, however, was that the grounds on which she repeatedly claims superiority over her neighbours was so familiar to me. Literacy, she tells her American neighbour. She, Moodie, can expect a certain reverence from her neighbours and her servants not because of her colour, wealth or nationality, but because of her education (putting aside for today the glaring fact that her education is the privilege of her colour, wealth and nationality).
It is not very fashionable today to claim superiority over another person for any reason whatsoever, let alone for reasons stemming from socioeconomic happenstance. And yet I can’t help but think that our attitudes towards the superiority of the literate person have changed only in how we voice the attitude: now the uneducated person has our sympathy and our pity, and we feel responsible for raising them up out of their ignorance. The story told by Western literature still goes that the hero, the good guy, is the guy with the book in his hand.
This narrative is especially glaring in stories about disenfranchised minorities: the poor, the brown, the unenlightened. Consider two recent, critically lauded examples: Larry Hill’s The Book of Negroes and Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Both books are biographies of heroes who rise beyond their difficult circumstances and score one for the little people, and in both cases the hero is set apart from their peers by their literacy. Hill’s Aminata is as well read as any educated aristocrat and it earns her every protector and defender she has in her story. Carey’s Ned Kelly, meanwhile, is literate enough to write his own history and is depicted as hauling a worn old copy of Lorna Doone through all his trials and tribulations. Reading is a great power wielded by these characters and it is the magic that gives them their break.
Of course, literacy is a great power and for that reason it is rightfully identified as one of the pillars of a strong, fair, free society. Yet when expressed by Susanna Moodie as a superiority I find myself questioning my literate person’s worship of the printed word. To what extent is this idea that literate = superior a cultural assumption made by a society which hails the (European) printing press as the pinnacle of civilization? Would we have as much respect for an illiterate hero?
How interesting also that the hero of literature is a learned one, while in real life the smart guy is still an object of distrust and ridicule. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, in one of its more brilliant moments, has a hilarious scene in which the scientist-monks cloistered in their concent (a sort of convent – not a typo) are drilled in the many ways society has vilified and objectified the learned man in order to gain back some power from him. The learned man as wizard. The learned man as conspirator. The learned man as bearer of fire and bringer of Armageddon. We don’t even have to look to literature for precedents (in fact, we’re better off not) – I am given to understand that the President of the country next door takes an awful lot of flack on a daily basis for being smart. Hide the books and the Dijon if you want to avoid being beat up at recess.
There seems to be a disconnect between our literati and our popular culture. Susanna Moodie made no headway trying to explain to her American neighbour why her education entitled her to greater respect – the neighbour still felt she was a useless old country lady who wouldn’t survive two winters in Canada. Are our contemporary writers suffering from the same blind spot? Would Aminata Diallo have really won all those allies with her brain for books, or would she have been put down extra-hard because of the impertinence and the threat it represented? Is the bookish hero just a collective fantasy drawn up by bookish people for bookish audiences?