Monday, October 25, 2021

Good Books #1: Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

 This country wrote and wrote and wrote about 'The Great American Novel' as though it's a designation that ever had any meaning, but if it does, it was always the wrong books mentioned. Is literary greatness really about hunting white whales or getting thrown out of boarding schools? The whiteness of these lists is a problem, but it's a symptom of the bigger problem, which is that the very idea of 'literary greatness' is more about the greatness than the literature. Literature or 'litteras' is the Latin word for letters, and just as in English, letters both mean the alphabet and correspondence. Letters are about intimacy, richness of experience, forming connections between writer and reader... so literature is literally about inclusion at its root meaning. Literature is meant to be about the dignity of little people in situations too great to not oppress, and we read about them not because the characters are diverse, but because the characters are oppressed.

So any list of candidates for the Great American Novel that does not have Bless Me, Ultima near the top is just a false list where the critic is either too ignorant to be read, hasn't read it out of bad faith, or is keeping the book from us for their own political ends. It's very rare that you get to say 'this book is so good that if you don't like it, the problem is you,' but if you don't believe me.... read the fucking book...
Bless Me, Ultima is the simplest story ever told, and yet its complexities are infinite. On the one hand it's simply about life in the Chicano parts of postwar New Mexico, where babies are born, kids grow up, adults chase opportunities they never find, and the elderly pass on their knowledge. On the other hand, it's about the forces of creation itself, and about a three way battle between reason, religion, and superstition. It's about the nature of memory to exaggerate the past, and how the bonds of family simultaneously hold us together and wear us down. It uses modern literary techniques so deftly that you feel as though you're reading variations on folk tales told by the bards of Native America before any Spaniard could influence their telling, and in many ways, that's exactly what we're doing when we read this book. And yes, it's about poverty and racism too, very much so. It's a work that's equal parts Cather, G G Marquez, IB Singer, Emily Brontë, Hawthorne, and Shakespeare. In 1972 it sold 300,000 copies purely by word of mouth, and then it disappeared. But unlike so many American one-hit wonders, Rudolfo Anaya plugged on to the very end - 35 books. Anaya died last year, and as far as commemorations go, it was as though he never existed.
Bless Me, Ultima, is the perfect book for our time. A book as great as Great Gatsby and Huck Finn, once ignored by the critical establishment because its writer was Chicano, and a book still ignored by the intersectional literary world because.... why exactly? I have no answer to that, but of course, I have a guess, and my guess is that Anaya was inconvenient proof that quality literature from minority communities had a chance for mainstream acceptance even in the whiteness of mid-century America. I have no way of proving that, but the critical ignorance of this book's quality is as scandalous today as it was forty years ago.
If you want to read and promote a book that convinces the world that the lived experience of minority demographics can summon aesthetic glories which no other can summon, there it lies - the ultimate evidence that more equal representation benefits art and communities in equal measure, and yet when I go on goodreads, literally one person among the incredibly woke people I know has read it, and only one person has marked it 'to read.'
But that's the thing.... The fact that Bless Me, Ultima still goes unnoticed in spite of its author's death, in spite of its extreme usefulness in proving right every claim about the benefit of listening to unheard voices of color.... that makes this book exhibit A that most people who talk about more equal representation in art don't care very much about art, they care much more about making art into an arm of ideological propaganda, and might let art and artists burn to the ground rather than let art exist as something more complex than the messages they want it to carry. They're perfectly happy to be tourists in the artistic world, advocating for artists that represent different demographics, so long as they don't have to be among the audiences consuming the art themselves.
Artists, as opposed to businessmen or scientists, have few real bases of power, and it's not like most artists have ever studied politics, so rather than revolutionize areas of human endeavor like technology or industry that demonstrably change people's lives, the world of woke worms itself into the arts where most practitioners never had much power or security to begin with, and go through their days feeling so humiliated that convincing them of the necessity of a revolution is very easy.
So to anybody reading this out there on the woke ramparts: here's yet another message from the kind of white (and Jewish...) liberal you're currently trying so hard to render extinct: the woke vanguard is ignoring the singular book that could be its very best argument. This is the kind of book that whatever you're reading, you have to put everything down to read, it's proof that the Great American Novel may have been written by a person of color, and has been staring at us from our grandparents' shelves for fifty years; yet nobody knows about it, nobody shows evidence of wanting to find out about it, and nobody's shown any desire to search it out. You owe reading this book to yourselves, your students, your friends and family, your world. I don't know how many exclamation points to put at the end of this message to make people realize the importance of this book, but it's there, just waiting; a timebomb of truth and beauty that could do more to empower entire BIPOC communities than anything in the Bible and simultaneously convince white people that they've underthought about the humanity of millions who live right next to them. If you haven't read it, if nobody you know has read it, powerful cliques are out there, trying to make sure you don't know about this book because it's better for their agenda to keep a book this good under wraps, and iot's probably two separate cliques. If Bless Me, Ultima were widely read today, I guarantee that one in four thinkpieces would consider the question of the 'Great American Novel' closed forever, and it would do as much to make people think of their fellow citizens more democratically as anything in Leaves of Grass.
So if I can write anything about good books that is of any use to anybody, my message is obviously very subtle:

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