By Charles Sarvan –
Professor Sarah Churchwell’s article, ‘Moonlight and magnolias: The fictions that sustained the American South’ (New Statesman, 21 – 27 August 2015, pp. 34 – 37) discusses the portrayal of the American South, focusing mainly on two ‘texts’: the film ‘Gone with the Wind’ and Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. However, her case that fictional works, be they film or novel, can present a varnished and romanticised version and so falsify and hide reality, past or present, can apply to other countries and their visual representations in film or fiction; painting, sculpture or song. For example, the Confederate flag was romanticised, “wrapping America in comforting lies” (Churchwell). As President Obama said, Confederate soldiers may have fought bravely but their cause – the perpetuation of brutal slavery – was immoral and inhumane. They fought for freedom, the freedom to enslave others, and so maintain a privileged way of life.
The preface to the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind has, inter alia, the following: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields… Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow…Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave…Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilisation gone with the wind” (cited by Churchwell). Mark Twain (Life on the Mississippi, 1883, Chapter 40) quotes from a Kentucky school-prospectus: “the young ladies are trained according to Southern ideas of delicacy, refinement, womanhood, religion and propriety”. And this by a culture based on brutal slavery. People can be proud of their way of life, when they ought to feel shame: self-deception and self-justification. (Members of the crude and cruel Ku Klux Klan saw themselves as virtuous knights riding to the rescue of Christian values and civilisation.) I saw the film ‘Gone With the Wind’ in my early teens, and remember with chagrin the sense of sadness it then created in me at the passing away of what seemed a heroic and gallant way of life: “innocence” can be another word for “ignorance”. So it was also with films which featured Native-Americans, formerly known as “Red Indians”. They were savages bent on rape and given to the horrible habit of collecting human scalp. They charged wildly at the out-numbered whites who heroically stood their ground and, eventually, won. Hiding the truth, falsifying history and manipulating spectator-response, one didn’t realize that the Native-Americans were fighting for their very survival on land which had been theirs for centuries, and of which they were being remorselessly and relentlessly robbed through superior weaponry. Ironically, at the end of such “Red Indian” films one had a sense that right had triumphed. So too with the reaction of South Asian audiences in the past to ‘British Raj’ films where the beautiful ‘native’ mistress of the British hero either conveniently dies or is abandoned for a white woman. Yet another experience from years past is an African audience in Lusaka cheering white (ipso facto good) Tarzan as he overcame the bad black chief.
Dealing with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960, but based on a 1936 incident), Churchwell points to the novel’s fallacy “that systematic racism could be solved by the compassionate actions” of a few noble individuals. “This is the consolatory promise of individualism, that the nation can be redeemed collectively by isolated instances of benign action”. It is so also with all acts of personal succour and kindness rendered to victims during times of group-persecution. Sri Lankans know that during anti-Tamil riots, including the pogrom of 1983, there were instances of Sinhalese who risked themselves and their families to give shelter to Tamil neighbours and friends. While such actions are highly meritorious, one must not be deluded into thinking that the fundamental nature of things is thereby changed. A few white men standing up for Native Americans did not alter the latter’s History; the injustice, tragedy and suffering that befell them. Much as we would wish it were otherwise, History and a people cannot be “redeemed collectively” by the “benign action” of a few individuals (Churchwell). Such individual action redeems only the individual – not the group.
Churchwell is particularly forceful when dealing with the attempted lynching of innocent, black, Tom Robinson. The men, determined but embarrassed, come in the secrecy of night to get Tom but are made to feel shame by “Scout”, the six-year-old fictional narrator, accidentally reminding them of decency. The novel “participates in collective myth-making” because lynching in the South was not carried out in secret: it was “often publicly marketed as a tourist attraction” and took place “in the cold light of day, with plenty of advance warning so people could travel from outlying areas for the fun” (p. 37). Families brought children and had picnics. “Burning at the stake was common, victims were often tortured or castrated, or had limbs amputated, or were otherwise mutilated first; pregnant women were burned to death in front of popcorn-crunching crowds” (ibid). One recalls the song made famous by Billie Holiday:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias,
sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather,
for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot,
for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
“Lee’s picture of lynching…is not merely sentimental, but an active falsification” (Churchwell). The novel is an apology – ‘apology’ in the earlier meaning of defence or justification. ‘Fiction’ now usually means novels, novellas and short stories but another meaning of fiction is ‘that which is not true’. It has been observed that fiction tells lies in order to tell the truth. The “lie” consists in the invention of characters, action, words and setting; the truth in the understanding of human experience and of society. But fiction, in one sense of the word, can also serve to create fiction of quite another kind.
Mark Twain in Chapter 46 the work already mentioned writes of “the power of a single book” to do much good – or harm. (Sri Lankan scholars, Sinhalese Buddhists included, have long pointed out the falsifications and the incalculable damage done by The Mahavamsa: see Note below.) Twain writes that ‘Don Quixote’ (published 1605) swept “the world’s admiration for the medieval chivalry-silliness out of existence”. About two hundred years later came Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820) with its castles; brave and gallant knights, and damsels in distress. Mark Twain charges: “Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter”. (Scott died in 1832.) In To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem, the brother of the narrator, destroys old Mrs. Dubose’s flowers. By way of apology, his father tells him to do whatever chores she asks: one of her demands is that Jem reads aloud Ivanhoe to her.
But is Mark Twain right in so attributing responsibility, and in blaming the novel? Ivanhoe was widely, internationally, read and the question arises: Why didn’t other people and cultures also come under its influence? To employ an analogy, religion can be used to create Ahimsa and loving-kindness towards all, or to justify hate and violence; subordination and exclusion. The relationship between religion and society; between ‘text’, be it fiction or film, and culture is symbiotic. It is not the text itself, literary or otherwise; be it The Mahavamsa in Sri Lanka or Ivanhoe in the ‘white supremacist’ American South, but its reception, and the use to which it is put.
What passes as mere entertainment can falsely justify and indoctrinate. “Many insist that the stories we consume endlessly are harmless entertainment” but they [and some ‘racial’ epics] create what never existed, and smother “with the scent of magnolia the stink of old, decomposing lies” (Churchwell).
Note on The Mahavamsa
Professor Carlo Fonseka wrote: “I do not find that reading the Mahavamsa enhances my self-esteem as a Sinhalese. On the contrary I feel greatly embarrassed and deeply humiliated when I learn that we the Sinhalese are the descendants of Vijaya, the banished profligate son of an incestuous marriage between (Sihabahu) and sister (Sihasivali) whose mother was so exceedingly lustful that only a real lion could satisfy her sexually. Moreover, Sihabahu killed his leonine father, the king of the brutes […] Thus, according to the Mahavamsa, brutishness, bestiality, incest, patricide and profligacy, were the stuff of our genesis […] of the 54 rulers recounted in the Mahavamsa, 22 were murdered by their successors; 11 were overthrown; 13 killed were killed in battle and 6 were assassinated” (The Island, 22 October 1995). Professor Fonseka also comments: “My heroes are among those who discovered how to harness the forces of nature to promote human welfare; diminished the load of human suffering caused by disease; created things of beauty in music, literature and art.”
However, as I have noted “The Mahavamsa does have interesting and instructive stories: what needs to be altered is how the text is presented and interpreted. To cite an instance, Chapter V1 describes an act of patricide, the slaying by Sihabahu of his lion-father. The lion sees Sihabahu and “for love toward his son”, comes out of the cave, thus exposing and making himself vulnerable. Sihabahu shoots an arrow at him. It “struck the lion’s forehead but because of his tenderness toward his son, it rebounded and fell on the earth at the youth’s feet. And so it happened three times, then did the king of the beasts grow wrathful and the arrow sent at him struck him and pierced his body.” The story should not be taken literally but figuratively, as a tale that simply tries to teach wisdom and moral conduct; the Buddhist ideal of self-control and compassion: love forgives and protects. As long as there was love in the lion for his son, it was not “touched”. It is only when love is replaced by self and anger that we can be wounded. How we react to what happens to us is finally more important than what happens, and so on.” (Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Vol. 11, Page 30.)