|Michelangelo - Awakening Slave|
I walk a lot. While I walk, I think about things – these days, I think a lot about Mennonite culture – and books. So yesterday, I was thinking about my own relationship to contemporary Mennonite culture and the relationship between literature, identity and religion.
The thought occurred to me that while I might live in my own sort of personal Mennonite world, I could never again survive in the more collective mentality of the home community. What is the problem? I cook traditional Mennonite foods, read Mennonite books and poetry. I travel to Mennonite destinations and I can read both Fraktur and cipher notes. Of anyone, I definitely possess a true Mennonite identity. To top it off, I actually attend Mennonite church and enjoy it – I mean, who does that anymore?
The problem is simply this, that I have the Mennonite cultural paradigm upside-down. The basic Mennonite (or Amish) cultural model is “separation from society” and “integration with the local gemeinde” or congregation. But in my world, this is upside down. In order for me survive intellectually and spiritually, I need to be part of the larger world culture while achieving some sort of privacy or social distance from the sometimes overly, er, supportive church neighbors – even all the ones to which I’m so closely related.
I require a personal, direct access to the outside world – integration into the global set of ideas and thoughts – absorption in the noosphere. I have to listen to the CBC. I have to read the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, the Mail & Guardian, L’Express and The Economist. I attend Mass just to fellowship with Catholic friends. It just has to be. Once a year, just like I have to have verenika at Schmekfest, I have to have spring café americain (or even better, un café léger) et un pain au chocolat in Paris. Yes, I will confess, if I can squeeze it in – also a Sunday morning in Amsterdam with a post-church, post-flea market brunch at Café de Jaren.
Notably, I prefer to read my papers and eat my Sunday soup in peace, i.e. to engage this greater culture alone, maybe with the dogs. Even in Paris, I prefer my café au seule (me, not the coffee).
I do not mind discussing whether we should encourage others to read controversial worldly writers or whether an outside writer is controversial or not in the first place, but I do dislike being censored myself or even having others review what I am reading. I will share any pertinent personal perspectives when I am finished and if I so choose.
Likewise, I am a horrible date to the symphony or opera – if I am enjoying the music, I am in my own little world – not in yours, or ours. I need space for absorption and reflection. After a friendly dinner with family or friends, I enjoy, no, I need to unwind with the night-time breeze, the Milky Way and a companionable dog at my side. I am not a loner, but everyone needs some space.
So, on this walk, it occurred to me then that much of Mennonite literature might suffer from the same problem – an inverted Mennonite cultural paradigm – the needs of the literary culture are opposed to those of the surrounding or target Anabaptist culture from which we write. Writers need to be connected to the outside world – to participate in something greater than themselves, to discover the Other, to identify, exploit and resolve difference, to transcend cultural barriers. At the same time, one needs personal and creative space outside the gemeinde or community to reflect, to observe, to critique, to rant, to be different – to be tolerated without being harshly judged. Think Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit.
|(c) Agassiz Media, 2012.|
As an individual, a writer must be close to that which must also be shunned or avoided, yet distant from that towards which we are exhorted to drop all personal boundaries. This is the opposite of how Mennonites, Amish and a larger number of Evangelicals strive to live.
A criticism of Menno Lit is that is has yet to emerge from the narrative or memoir stage – that it is still bogged down by historical perspective and personal experience, having yet to mature into a truly creative exploration of constructed paradigms, archetypes, iconoclasts and alternatives. We are so busy proving ourselves culturally and creatively to outsiders while attempting to justify establishment of the necessary distance within and from our source community, that we have little time and energy to effectively engage the higher “creative,” “interpretive” and “critical” skills necessary to establish a truly artistic culture – one that is both meaningful to the communities with which we identify yet speaks universal truth to the outside world.
I am not saying that there are not gifted, or even genius Mennonite and Amish writers. In fact, I spend most of my time trying to convince people that Mennonite literature and culture is beautiful, intriguing and pertinent – especially the writing community out of Mennonite Canada. But, even Rudy Wiebe has yet to really break into the less-Mennonite-aware US market. Novelist Sandra Birdsell has achieved a bit more success – but few of our truly gifted poets have even flirted with the general American consumer bookshelf.
Is the problem that we are too ethnic? Probably not. The American South, Jewish-American, African-American, Gay and Lesbian and Native American writers have all achieved both followings and an intellectual impact on the larger American, if not world, cultural awareness. Unless you count popular Amish romance novels (considered by many their own religious genre), Anabaptist ethnic culture seems to hit more of an ethnic niche than it does a truly generalized American cultural experience. I mean, if Isak Dinesen could do it as a Scandinavian-African (a very, very small community), what’s our excuse?
So, it occurs to me that if I were helping to construct a reading list for a culturally-relevant Menno Lit course, I would probably eschew the majority of Mennonite and Amish writers altogether – rather choose from amongst the following “universal” cultural works that speak rather directly to the Anabaptist experience:
- Aleichem, Sholem – Tevya the Milkman and Other Tales (1894)
- Dostoyevsky, Fyodor – The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
- Fry, Rosaline K. – The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry (1959)
- Jackson, Shirley – The Lottery (1948)
- Kingston, Maxine Hong – Woman Warrior (1989)
- Kundera, Milan – The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)
- Milosz, Czeslaw – Issa Valley (1955)
- Milosz, Czeslaw – The Captive Mind (1953)
- Potok, Chaim – My Name is Ashur Lev (1972)
Admittedly, there are many, many more – but the above list represents a pantheon or canon of classic writings on culture, tradition, religion and community, individual awakening or the questions of gemeinshaft possibly gone wrong – sometimes gone terribly wrong (The Lottery still gives me nightmares). Others could be added, but while I am totally up for a Mennonite reading of John Coatzee or even Isak Dinesen, the above list is relatively straightforward, requiring few interpretative gymnastics.
What is the standard towards which Mennonites must strive? Hans Christian Anderson, Louise Erdrich, Maxine Hong Kingston, Henrik Ibsen, Göethe, Boris Pasternak and Jane Austen set high standards that are yet derived out their respective cultures in ways that are natural and informing to the global culture. They represent universal values and perspectives built on individual experiences.
What’s the goal? Well, in a college discussion (so very long ago) regarding Aleichem, the response was that Tevya has nothing to do with Mennonites, or even Jews – it’s a universal story that transcends culture – it’s about America – ascribing Aleichem to a mere ethnic Jewish identity would be considered limiting (I had held him up as an example of the diasporaic identity.)
Patrick Friesen is probably the greatest Postmodern poet of Mennonite culture – yet, his beautiful portrayal of the anguished confrontation between self and community has yet to truly resonate with the greater Northern American culture. Should it? There is no perceivable reason why it has not. Yet, at the same time, most Russian Mennonites have also arguably identified more fully with Fiddler on the Roof than with The Shunning.
Why is this so? All I can think of at the moment is that we, as individuals and as an ethnic literary minority, have so far failed to reconcile our traditional focus on the community with our creative need to be in the world.
Nor is this confined to literature – we remain conflicted culturally and spiritually as well. The New Testament encourages us to be in the world but to be separated out of it – to be all things to all people and yet to preserve a unique, untainted witness. If our theologians, after some 500 years, haven’t yet perfected these principles, our relatively young creative literary culture can hardly be criticized… yet culturally, harsh criticism of our community is what Mennonites are often best known for… so um, er… we might need to create some personal distance and gain some perspective… or something like that…
Sometimes an issue can be identified without being resolved.