Friday, September 18, 2015

A Note on Reading Louise Erdrich

What could be worse than to never outgrow the tastes and preferences of your 15-year-old self?

As an early college freshman, I was made to read something by Louise Erdrich. I don't remember exactly what. Perhaps an excerpt from Love Medicine, or a short story, included in the sort of anthology that is designed for expanding the literary horizons of college freshmen. I didn't like it. That was to be expected. I was on a High Modernism kick that never really ended, and I had little experiential basis for having a sympathetic reaction to women characters of any age. Add to that the default white supremacy of anyone raised in the United States, especially in the developmental stage of "callow youth," and this was a bit of mid-1990s mandatory multiculturalism that was doomed not to have the desired effect. Erdrich's prose was too mimetic for my taste, and its comprehension dependent upon a metaphysics which I was predisposed to regard as "inferior" to my own half-baked ideologizations. And it was for chicks.

Appreciation of a writer's work depends upon the reader encountering it at the right moment in life. Freshman year is so rarely the right moment in anyone's life. Fortunately for me, I was predisposed to recognized my dislike for Erdrich as stemming from my own inadequacies rather than hers, by the fact that people whose tastes I respected seemed to like her. No, there was no young Anishinaabe woman in my circle of friends to show me the error of my ways: Among the many unfortunate after-effects of genocide is that its survivors tend not to be well-enough distributed to be solely responsible for the enlightenment of others. The Erdrich fans in my circle were my friend K., and my friend-later-girlfriend-later-fiancée-later-wife D. Both young white women, K. perhaps predisposed to appreciating Erdrich's depiction of the upper Midwest geography and culture of her upbringing, D. by the kind of liberal Judaism that continues to identify--half a century or more after it having ceased to be the case--Jews with the oppressed and dispossessed share of humanity. Their appreciation of her work alone could not convince me that it was good, but it was enough at least to implant the seed of doubt, to consider the possibility that there was something of value that I was missing.

I have only taken up the reading of Erdrich in the last couple of years. Not yet Love Medicine, her first and still canonical novel, but The Round House and Tracks and various short stories and excerpts published in literary magazines to which I subscribe, the sort of backdoor route into an author's work taken by bibliophiles and amateurs rather than students in a survey course. And I have found without exception thus far, as a more experienced, less prejudiced reader in his mid-30s, consistent brilliance both at the level of the individual sentence or paragraph and in terms of narrative structure and characterization. Which I would have missed entirely had I remained in thrall to the critical judgment of my 15-year-old self and never so much as started reading those pieces.

To never outgrow the judgments of one's adolescent self, it would be necessary to have so little respect for the judgment of others that it would be impossible to ever entertain the possibility that one may ever have been wrong. To be incapable of any kind of metacognitive judgment of one's own limitations, sealed off permanently from any kind of learning. The only thing worse than that would be to be capable of learning, and yet have to endure the dominance of minds permanently stunted by their partial, relative access to temporal power.