Thursday, March 12, 2015

Half-Breeds Like Us

In which I muse on my mixed ethnic background, the sense of isolation resulting from such a background, the history of negative mixed-ethnic stereotypes in letters and logic, and the weird ways in which these play a role in my writing.

Wagner's Hagen: half man, half dwarf.

Raymond Chandler's Playback is not his most well-known novel. It's meandering and depressing and mildly offensive, though it might have made a good noir film in the hands of the right director. In the course of this particular quest for truth, Marlowe finds himself extracting information from a parking garage attendant:
I let the door close and stood outside it waiting and a lean man in a long white coat came around the corner. He wore glasses, had a skin the color of cold oatmeal and hollow tired eyes. There was something Mongolian about his face, something south-of-the-border, something Indian, and something darker than that. His black hair was flat on a narrow skull.
Marlowe questions him, using his dope habit as leverage. In the course of their conversation the man reveals his ethnicity:
"You're not Mex?" 
"I'm part Chinese, part Hawaiian, part Filipino, and part n****r. You'd hate to be me."
He turned away and I went through the door and rang for the elevator. He was a queer duck, the attendant, very queer. Kind of interesting, though. And kind of sad, too. One of the sad, one of the lost.
Later on, Marlowe goes to find him at his house.
At the far corner of Polton's Lane there was an automobile agency. I followed its high blank wall, looking at broken crates, piles of cartons, trash drums, dusty parking spaces, the back yard of elegance. I counted the buildings. It was easy. No questions to ask. A light burned in the small window of a tiny frame cottage that had long ago been somebody's simple home. The cottage had a wooden porch with a broken railing. It had been painted once, but that was in the remote past before the shops swallowed it up. Once it may even have had a garden. The shingles of the roof were warped. The front door was  a dirty mustard yellow.
It goes on like this for a while. Then comes the inevitable discovery:
The man's scuffed toes almost touched the floor. His head was up in the darkness inches from the two by four that held up the rooof. He was hanging by a black wire, probably a piece of electric light wire. The toes of his feet were pointed down as if they reached to stand on tiptoe. [...]
I closed the door on him. I didn't go back in the house. As I went along the side towards Polton's Lane, that handsome residential street, the parrot inside the shack heard me and screeched "Quién es? Quién es? Quién es?"
A cruel but effective and not unsympathetic portrait of a person relegated to the interstices of society.

*     *     *

I am, as I have mentioned before, of rather mixed ancestry. Two of my grandparents were born in Puerto Rico, and their genes were a mixture of Spanish, Native American, and West African; my other grandfather came of Greek immigrants who entered the country by way of Ellis Island, and my other grandmother came of plains-dwelling Bohemians like characters in a Willa Cather novel. Practically speaking, what all this rich heritage means in is that I'm an outsider in every party.

When my Greek grandfather married my Bohemian grandmother, he was for a time persona non grata with her family. Her parents refused at first to let him in the house, or so the story goes. Being quite a likeable guy, though, he eventually won everyone over; actually, he became so integrated in the town that he hosted a polka program on the local radio station. They eventually settled elsewhere, and my grandmother had nine children – think My Big Fat Greek Wedding – while her brother had seven, giving rise to two very large but very distinct branches. The first is scattered from the West Coast to the East Coast; the second has tended to stay close to home.

A couple summers ago I went to a reunion in the old hometown. It was friendly, but I could sense a certain amount of tension. I suppose it didn't help that the cookout took place in a park dedicated to Hermann (Arminius, the titular protector of the Sons of Hermann), in the shadow of a terrifying statue of the hero that looms over the whole town from atop a towering dome, a kind of shrine where devotional souvenirs are sold. A relative lamented to me that her children aren't pure-blooded, as her husband isn't entirely of Germanic extraction. My children are purely human, and that's about it.

But back to my grandfather. On his own side he was regarded as having run off to marry an outsider. He made a choice – a sacrifice – to turn his back on his Greek heritage and embrace American patriotism like no other person I know. Similarly, my Puerto Rican grandparents raised my father to speak English, not Spanish. This was a conscious decision to integrate. My great-grandfather was a railroad worker; my grandfather was a sailor and airman and hardware store manager; my dad was a soldier and science teacher and counselor; and I'm what I am, such as it is. I guess we're slowly working our way in.

Incidentally, though, I'm not criticizing those who choose to retain a strong cultural identity in this country. On the contrary, I have an acute sympathy for them, because I know what happens when you lose it, and find yourself falling between chairs. I've sometimes regretted my family's sacrifice. But then again, I like existing.

*     *     *

There is a tendency, even among the diversity-minded, to view ethnicity as a matter of discrete categories or sets. To them, the "other" about which they are so solicitous tends to be a pure-blooded member of an ethnic minority, a view reinforced by bureaucratic check-boxes. In such a world the half-breed has no place. But of course ethnicity is really more like a collection of fuzzy sets.

In Aristotelian logic and classical set theory, an individual either does or does not belong to a set. The concept of the fuzzy set, developed by Lotfi Zadeh in the 1960s, allows for degrees of membership. Membership is valued as a real number μ such that 0 ≤ μ ≤ 1. In contrast to this, membership in ordinary or "crisp" sets is valued as 0 (not belonging) or 1 (belonging). In a rigorous sense, fuzzy logic is, I think, still insufficient to model ethnicity, because there clearly is a discrete element to genetics – inheritance is "digital" rather than "analog" (as, I believe, Mike Flynn put it, though I can't find the passage now) – and no ethnic category has a well-defined center, as though springing from a single progenitor like mankind from Adam. But as a metaphor, the concept at least captures the fact that we're not dealing with a black-and-white issue.

Thayer Watkins, whose website I consulted while reading about fuzzy sets, opines that Lotfi Zadeh's ethnicity is itself an example of a fuzzy set:
The question of Zadeh's ethnicity is difficult to answer sharply. His father was Turkish-Iranian (Azerbaijani) and his mother was Russian.
Dr. Watkins' site has some (alas, broken) links to discussions of the art of Paul Klee, a subject that fascinates me. It's interesting and possibly significant that the same people who were so fixated on the idea of racial purity were also the most suspicious of visual abstraction. (I wrote a bit about "degenerate art" here, and defended the art of Paul Klee here; these were part of a larger essay.) It's also interesting that A. E. van Vogt, who helped to popularize non-Aristotelian logic in the 1940s with his Null-A books (which I'm very fond of), apparently grew up speaking Low German in a Russian Mennonite community in Canada; whether he was ethnically diverse I don't know, but certainly he was personally acquainted with the idea of degrees of membership. It's the pitiably thalamic Enro the Reds of this world who feel the need to call black black and white white and fear or anathemize anything that falls between.

*     *     *

I sometimes read Nietzsche. How great a philosopher he was is debatable, but he had a penetrating insight, and was sensitive to the trends of his times and what was to come. At any rate I've found him useful. Henri de Lubac's Drama of Atheist Humanism has been helpful in this regard.

Nietzsche discusses the mixture of races at some length in Beyond Good and Evil. To wit:
In an age of disintegration that mixes races indiscriminately, human beings have in their bodies the heritage of multiple origins, that is, opposite, and often not merely opposite, drives and value standards that fight each other and rarely permit each other any rest. Such human beings of late cultures and refracted lights will on the average be weaker human beings: their most profound desire is that the war they are should come to an end. Happiness appears to them, in agreement with a tranquilizing…medicine and way of thought, pre-eminently as the happiness of resting, of not being disturbed, of satiety, of finally obtained unity, as a 'sabbath of sabbaths.'
It's hard to read this without reflecting on the way history went in the following century. There were the Nazi atrocities, and all else pales beside them, but even in our own country we had anti-miscegenation laws and the eugenics movement. Might not the still-current suspicion of the mixing of races be traced to the same origin? It's a little depressing to reflect that Alexis de Tocqueville predicted in Democracy in America that equality would never dawn until intermarriage created a smooth gradation between the races.

Anyway, Nietzsche goes on to describe how this leveling process sets the stage for the coming of the beautiful predatory one, the "Alcibiades" of history:
But when the opposition and war in such a nature have the effect of one more charm and incentive of life – and if, moreover, in addition to his powerful and irreconcilable drives, a real mastery and subtlety in waging war against oneself, in other words, self-control, self-outwitting, has been inherited or cultivated, too – then those magical, incomprehensible, and unfathomable ones arise, those enigmatic men predestined for victory and seduction… They appear in precisely the same ages when that weaker type with its desire for rest comes to the fore: both types belong together and owe their origin to the same causes. 
He later discusses Frederick II, better known as Frederick the Great:
Men were missing; and he [Frederick William I] suspected with the most bitter dismay that his own son [Frederick II] was not man enough… He saw his son surrender to atheism, to esprit, to the hedonistic frivolity of clever Frenchmen: in the background he saw that great vampire, the spider of skepticism; he suspected the incurable misery of a heart that is no longer hard enough for evil or good, of a broken will that no longer commands, no longer is capable of commanding. Meanwhile there grew up in his son that much more dangerous and harder new type of skepticism – who knows how much it owed precisely to the hatred of the father and the icy melancholy of a will condemned to solitude? – the skepticism of audacious manliness which is most closely related to the genius for war and conquest… This skepticism despises and nevertheless seizes; it undermines and takes possession; it does not believe but does not lose itself in the process; it gives the spirit dangerous freedom, but it is severe on the heart…
These ideas are profoundly repellent and fascinating to me. Repellent, because I embody everything Nietzsche saw in the degeneration of civilization: I'm not strong or ruthless or masterful, I'm racially impure, I have a developmental disability, I believe in the Beatitudes he so despised, &c. Fascinating, because they have a certain inner consistency and dramatic effectiveness, and even a romantic aura, if you're one of the pure-blooded. 

*     *     *

My ruminations on the subject gave rise to a pulp adventure story called "The Goblin King's Concubine." The plot outline was suggested by the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, mother of Quanah Parker, a story that also inspired Robert E. Howard's "The Vale of Lost Women," which has some disquieting racial elements. "Concubine" is the tale of a half-breed who falls between cultures. Write what you know, as they say. The character I identify with is Zilla. Maybe I shouldn't admit that! It's a dark tale and obviously made some people uncomfortable. But despite its origin it doesn't have a message or point. It's just a story written for entertainment.

And the half-goblin Zilla's biography extends far beyond it. He goes back almost twenty years in the history of my imagination, appeared in my earlier story, "Misbegotten," and plays a role in my forthcoming novel, Dragonfly. He is inspired by Nietzsche's Frederick the Great as well as Dostoevsky's Nikolai Stavrogin (The Possessed), Wagner's half-dwarf Hagen (Götterdämmerung), and, I must admit, Tolkien's "ill-favored" half-orc southerner in Bree. He comes from a desire to explode, from inside out, the negative stereotype of the suspicious half-breed, a role I've found myself assigned more than once. And by explode, I mean expand and dissect. But again, the objective is entertainment.

You see, I could write moralizing stories about virtuous half-breeds misunderstood and mistreated by their wicked pure-bred fellow citizens, but that would be obvious, stupid, and boring. No, my half-breed is not just suspicious and sneaky, but bad-ass, a great-souled warlock and conqueror who, far from being ill-favored, is so beautiful he has to wear a veil like Moses coming down from the mountain just to keep people from worshiping him.

So, yeah, Dragonfly, coming soon to an online retailer near you.

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