Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Strain theory in science and art

I was going to go in a very different direction with this post, focusing more on how interesting it has been to read non-fiction books that have kind of fallen out of fashion, but were very big in their day (Darwin and now Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa).  I think I'll leave that to another day.  Instead, I want to point out a very curious coincidence.  While Mead doesn't really name-check them, she seems to be drawing on the early sociological tradition (particularly Tonnies and Simmel) both of whom saw personal strain emerging when an individual moved from a rural, simple society to a much more complex, urban environment.  There might well be uncertainty over which mores to follow, which would certainly lead to internal conflict.  While there seems to be no question Mead had rose-tinted glasses in her description of Somoan society, she finds that there is much more balance and essentially inner peace in this society, since it is a unified culture and people don't have to more or less decide which group to belong to or which group norms are correct, which was the case in the United States, even as early as the 1920s.  In the last two chapters, Mead alludes to some conflicts within immigrant families where the children want to follow the more permissive dominant society, but in general, in her discussion, she has in mind a population that is already urbanizing.  I think the underlying message really is that unlimited choice can be paralyzing rather than empowering, and some theorists are coming back around to this view.  I'm generally on the side of those who celebrate the multiplicity of choices within the culture (to the point it is questionable there even is a dominant culture or ethos any longer) but I do recognize that it unsettles some people and many of those people would have been better off in a monoculture.

Willa Cather in My Antonia (and from what I can gather O Pioneers) is looking at an earlier transition from rural to urban life, basically the 1890s and early 1900s.  Indeed, Antonia and a couple of her friends explicitly state that moving to the city, off of the farm, gives them a more exciting and perhaps fulfilling life (which of course puts them into conflict with their parents and siblings back on the farm), though the wild life has major pitfalls, particularly for inexperienced girls.  However, the girls also are major contributors to the overall household economy, which is why they were allowed to move to the city in the first place (here it is the fictional Black Hawk, NE, which apparently was based on Red Cloud, NE).  Had the city not been an escape route open to them, it is possible (or at least arguable) that their attitudes would have been more compatible with an agricultural setting, and they would have been closer to the well-adjusted Samoan girls that Mead was studying.  In any case, I think it is an interesting parallel.  One might also look at Upton Sinclair's The Jungle to see how immigrants fared in the truly big city, or Dreiser's Sister Carrie where a relatively simple girl doesn't succeed in making the transition to urban life.

Anyway, the prairie setting has convinced me to pair My Antonia with Sinclair Ross's As For Me and My House, which is set during the Depression in a small Saskatchewan town.  The tone is very different from John Marlyn's Under the Ribs of Death.  (I probably ought to read this now, but I just couldn't bear it, and I will try one more time in a year or so.)  I have only just started Ross's novel, but it actually reminds me quite a bit of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which I ended up liking far more than I expected.  I learned relatively recently that this is part of a trilogy (with Home and Lila), and I'll have to decide some day if I think she was able to write two other books of such insight, or if I should just stop and not spoil the first one.  (My general sense from going through the comments on Goodreads is that Home is worth reading, as it reflects the events of Gilead back from another perspective -- somewhat akin to how Durrell's Bathazar reverses Justine -- but the world doesn't completely shift around, for a variety of reasons I won't go into right now.  There seems to be more ambivalence around Lila, though it certainly has its defenders.)  In any case, this is not a decision I need to make anytime soon.

Update with SPOILERS

Just to bring things full circle, it is very interesting how My Antonia ends.  There is a moment when I as a reader am disappointed in the narrator (Jim Burden), since he seems hopelessly in love with Antonia and he could have taken her back East, but perhaps he was just too constrained by convention and ashamed of scandal.  (And to be fair, at this point in her life, Antonia didn't want to leave the prairies.)  Nonetheless, this more romantic ending is probably how such a novel would end had it been written at any point after the 1960s when some of the stigma about unwed mothers had slowly started to fade.  (It doesn't lessen my overall appreciation for the novel, but I do think Burden should have been just a bit less straight-laced and he probably would have been a happier man.)  Instead, Antonia marries another immigrant and she moves back to the countryside and has a huge family (11 or so children!).  After some prompting from other childhood friends, Jim reunites with Antonia and more or less becomes a godfather to the children, though a distant one, since he lives in New York City, but does travel out West a fair bit for work.  Antonia seems quite content in her role as earth mother, and the boys work in the fields and the girls more or less take care of the babies, almost exactly as Mead described life in Samoa.  (Well, actually mature women worked the fields in Samoa, which is something Antonia used to do and may still do when not cooking and canning, while the men were more involved in hunting and particularly fishing.  But the young girls were heavily involved in caring for babies, far more than they normally would have been in urbanizing America.)

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